Over the past three weeks or so, the Upper Sixth Liberal Arts group has been researching the life and career of Ira Aldridge, the first known actor of colour to play Othello on the London stage. Taking as a common starting point theatre reviews published in The Times and the Athenaeum in the 1820s and 1830s, set alongside some recent newspaper articles on the barriers that still remain in place for BAME actors, the students explored the topic through a diverse range of disciplines.
This cross-curricular endeavour culminated in a highly illuminating series of presentations, during which the students travelled extensively across time, space and media. Students were informed about the meaning of the word ‘Moor’ in early modern England, the power of the actor-manager in the early 1800s, and a twenty-first-century dramatisation of Ira Aldridge’s astonishing acting life. They also encountered some bleak and disturbing histories in presentations on Scientific Racism and the ‘Scramble for Africa (1881-1914)’. Topics such as the African Company (the first all-black theatre troupe, founded in New York in 1816) underlined opportunities for future research, as did the intriguing history of Ira Aldridge’s daughter, memorably captured in a talk entitled ‘The First Black Wagnerian’. Undeterred by the challenges of remote communication, the girls shared their screens to reveal a wealth of creative skills – from stop motion film-making to cardboard-model imaginings of theatre spaces.
Although the Liberal Arts topic was set some time before the death of George Floyd, the growing momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement inevitably shaped and contextualised the discussions. While the final session felt all too short, it undoubtedly raised questions which students might well feel inspired to explore in their future studies. A heartfelt thank-you to all the Upper Sixth students who made this such a memorable and enjoyable project.