Black History Month: Ira Aldridge & the Limits of the Archive
Learn more about theatre manager Ira Aldridge and the challenges of researching his life in Coventry
by Francesca Rhodes
During Black History Month, we want to shed more light on the lives and achievements of people of colour, but what happens when the records are lost or incomplete? Ira Aldridge was not only a world-renowned Shakespearean actor, but also the first Black manager of a theatre in Britain. Our records state that ‘he ran the Coventry Theatre between January – May 1828’, and spoke about the abolition of slavery, encouraging local people to join the protest. He has been rightfully honoured with a blue plaque on the site of the theatre (now the old British Home Stores building), and a mural outside the Belgrade Theatre, painted by street artist Dreph as part of Coventry's UK City of Culture programme. And yet, when we search Coventry Archives for information about Ira Aldridge, there are no results whatsoever.
Using the search terms ‘Ira Aldridge’ or ‘Coventry Theatre’ generates zero results during the correct time-frame. We have collections of programmes from the Coventry Theatre in our reading room, but these start in the 1950s, over a century after Aldridge was manager. We know that his performances and speeches were reported on in the Coventry Herald, but again, there are no traces of such articles in the British Newspaper Archive. How can such an important figure have slipped through the cracks?
There are several reasons why Aldridge’s legacy is hard to find within our archives. Firstly, the performer was hardly ever known by his Christian name, and instead was referred to as ‘the African Roscius’. This makes reference to Quintus Roscius Gallus, a Roman comic actor who died in 62 BC – capturing Aldridge’s monumental talent while also problematically defining him according to his race.
When we search the British Newspaper Archive with the term ‘African Roscius’, suddenly Aldridge’s impact on the Coventry theatre scene becomes clear. The Coventry Herald covered a performance ‘for the Benefit of the African Roscius’ in February 1828, while Aldridge was manager. The ‘Coventry Theatre’ presented Oronooko, or the Royal Slave, with Aldridge playing the title role, perhaps in recognition of his abolitionist speeches in the city. The Herald also printed a short biography of Aldridge in January 1833, describing him as ‘the only actor of colour that ever was known’, acknowledging his pioneering contribution even while erasing the history of other Black performers.
Another major reason for the gaps in our archive is due to one subtle but important mistake: the Coventry Theatre did not exist in 1828. Our catalogue, several articles and even the commemorative plaque describe Aldridge as the manager of the Coventry Theatre, but this was in fact no more than a colloquial term for the actual institution – the Theatre Royal. This building on Smithford Street opened in 1818 and was Coventry’s first official theatre, where performances previously had been held in pubs or at St Mary’s Guildhall. The theatre closed again in 1889, but it welcomed many prominent nineteenth century actors during its short-lived run, including Edmund Kean, Elizabeth Rebecca Edwin, and of course Ira Aldridge.
The confusion about the name becomes more clear when turning towards archival documents. In 1857, the Theatre Royal was taken over by a new group of trustees calling themselves the ‘Coventry Theatre Lessee Company’. They formed ‘for the purpose of purchasing the lease, grant and properties of the Theatre Royal Coventry and rearranging, enlarging and redecorating the same to hold it for operatic, dramatic and other purposes’. Despite referring to themselves as a ‘Coventry Theatre’ group, the institution they managed was still called The Theatre Royal, as can be seen on a playbill from 1858. It is likely that this is part of the reason why ‘Coventry Theatre’ has been remembered, while ‘Theatre Royal’ has been forgotten altogether.
So what about our 1950s programmes from a so-called Coventry Theatre? Well, this is where the plot thickens. There was another institution called the Coventry Theatre – originally called the New Hippodrome but changing its name in the 1950s. This building on Hales Street closed down in 1985, becoming another playhouse that failed to stand the test of time.
Going back to Aldridge’s Theatre Royal, this closed its doors in 1889 and later became the Salvation Army, before it was the site of the British Home Stores. We hold the deed in our archives of the theatre being sold by William Bell to Iliffe & Sons, a former stationery company a couple doors down from the theatre which began to publish Autocar and the Midland Daily Telegraph. Aldridge was long dead by this point, having died suddenly in 1867, just weeks before a planned world tour.
If Ira Aldridge has been forgotten by our archives, it seems that his theatre has been forgotten too. All too often the lives and legacies of Black people are buried and hidden away, and during Black History Month we need now more than ever to try and change that. Aldridge may have his mural and commemorative plaque, but we’ll be working to make sure that the records we hold are clear, correct and deserving of such a monumental figure.
Come along and change the research narrative yourself in Coventry Archives, open Wednesday – Friday, 10:00-3:30, and alternating Saturdays.