Today in Theatre History–May 24, 1825–is the most likely date of the London debut performance of the great African-American actor, Ira Aldridge. Most histories of the stage cite October of 1825 as Aldridge’s debut on the London stage, playing the leading role in Southerne’s Oronooko at the Royal Coburg (now known as the Old Vic). The trouble with this historical fact is that it’s probably not true. Recent research shows that it is almost certain Aldridge actually made his first professional debut months earlier at the Royalty Theatre instead. An anonymous biography of Aldridge, published in 1850, initially made the claim for May, 1825, but without attribution. So subsequent historians have preferred to use Aldridge’s first documented performance dated the 11th of October. But now there appears to be hard evidence to support the earlier date contained in a playbill that was handed out at the Royal Minor Theatre in Manchester during Aldridge’s 1830 tour of the Midlands in which it clearly states that the “African Roscius” first appeared on the London stage at the Royalty Theatre in London’s East End on May 24, 1825. Why this is important may not be immediately apparent, unless one realizes just how soon this was after Aldridge left the hostile environment of New York City for the more tolerant theatres of Europe. It was just eighteen months earlier that Aldridge felt compelled to leave the United States after trying for several years to make it on the New York stage at the famed African Grove Theatre. But the early 1820s was not a particularly accommodating era for free citizens of African descent in the United States.
The African Grove (which opened in 1821) was forced to move several times by angry white crowds. So by 1824, the 17 year-old Aldridge took a bold step and moved to London. Within a year, he was on the professional stage making a name for himself–an extraordinary accomplishment for anyone, but especially for an 18 year-old African-American in Regency England. As most people know, Aldridge went on to a very successful professional acting career, performing throughout Europe as a celebrated and greatly respected star, settling his family eventually in Russia. He died in 1867 while on tour in Lodz, Poland–where he is now buried.