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The 19th-Century African-American Actor Who Conquered Europe

The African Grove Theater was an attempt to bring culture and entertainment to black audiences in Manhattan. It flourished for only a few years beginning in 1821, while slavery was still being phased out in New York state. But during those few years, a teenager named Ira Eldridge caught the acting bug. He learned the basics of his craft at the African Grove, and when it folded, he saw there was no other outlet for his passion in the United States. So he boarded a boat for Europe at the age of 17, and never looked back.    

Aldridge’s career as an actor was exceptional, and not just for a black actor at that time. He traveled farther, was seen by audiences in more countries, and won more medals, decorations, and awards than any other actor of his century. But, somehow, this 19th-century great slips under the radar. He seems to be too American to make it into British or European theatrical histories, and, because he performed almost exclusively in Europe, tends not to appear in American ones. For most of his career, Aldridge traveled from place to place, on short-term engagements that made it hard for him to build a reputation in any one spot. “As a luminary,” writes scholar Bernth Lindfors in the introduction to Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius, “he was more a comet than a fixed star—here today, gone tomorrow—and as a consequence, he shines less brightly now.”

Aldridge’s story is well worth knowing. Read about him at Atlas Obscura.

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