(Patricia Storace’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 10/5.)
Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor
The first recorded African-American theater troupe, the African Company, was founded in New York City in 1821, a company that the white theater establishment was determined to crush. A contemporary report describes the police shutting down a performance, hustling the actors off to jail, “whereupon they were released by the magistrate only after they pledged never again to act Shakespeare.”
The works of Shakespeare were a contested possession in the United States, often used by white America to reassure itself of the country’s Anglo-Saxonness, assuaging its fear of being a creole nation, a mulatto people. In 1835, for example, former President John Quincy Adams wrote: “the great moral lesson of the tragedy of ‘Othello’ is, that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the Law of Nature.” Nearly a century later, in 1932, his descendant Joseph Quincy Adams, the first director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, remarked in his inaugural address, “Shakespeare and America,” that Shakespeare’s works functioned, as they had during previous challenges, “during the period of foreign immigration, when the ethnic texture of our people was seriously altered,” to maintain the United States “in bonds of a common Anglo-Saxon culture.”
In the nineteenth century, Othello was a role played by white men, with only rare exceptions. An African-American actor named Ira Aldridge, who had made his debut with the African Company, emigrated to England in 1824 as the backstage assistant to an English actor. There, he not only practiced his craft, but won lasting acclaim and recognition as one of the great Shakespearean actors of the period, celebrated throughout Europe as the first black actor to play Othello, along with other leading roles in Shakespeare he couldn’t dream of playing in the United States. You can see one of the many portraits painted of Aldridge as Othello in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is described as having changed the very declamatory style—stylized and operatic—in which Othello had been played. Aldridge seemed to live the character rather than perform him.