Ira Aldridge was the first American actor to achieve European renown. He began his career with the all-Black African Grove Theatre in New York City but left the United States at seventeen to seek professional opportunities across the Atlantic. When he appeared in starring roles in London in 1825, theater critics disparaged his performances in racist terms. Aldridge spent the next twenty-five years touring provincial British theaters, steadily winning acclaim for roles ranging from Shakespearean tragedy to slapstick comedy.
Turning racial difference to his advantage, Aldridge promoted himself as “The African Tragedian” and claimed descent from a Senegalese prince. He made Othello his signature role but also performed in abolitionist melodramas and played Shylock, Macbeth, and Richard III in whiteface. Aldridge’s career reached its zenith during tours of Russia, France, and Poland in the 1850s and 1860s. He was planning a triumphant U.S. tour at the time of his death.