University of Warwick’s ‘Against prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828’

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University of Warwick’s ‘Against prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828’

We asked Tony Howard, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick and PI on the AHRC Multicultural Shakespeare Project, to reflect on the success of his 2016 Being Human festival event. The event took place in Coventry on 17 November 2016, and was produced in partnership with the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and the Coventry City of Culture 2021 Bid.

Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?

On the first night of Being Human 2016, we presented a rehearsed reading of Against Prejudice, a documentary drama celebrating the fact that in 1828 – at the height of the Abolitionist struggle – the African American actor Ira Aldridge became Manager of the Coventry Theatre. Our script, drawn from original documents, involved three leading actors, with Ray Fearon – recently Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe – as Aldridge. They were supported by the Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre and community choir, who performed scenes and songs from the anti-slavery plays Aldridge presented. In 1828 he was only twenty years old.

After the 75-minute performance, the choir led a torch lit procession through the streets to place flowers at the site of the Coventry Theatre, demolished over a century ago. The first flowers were laid by the 99-year-old Bermudan actor Earl Cameron, who was trained by Aldridge’s daughter Amanda.

We set out to honour the achievements of an inspirational black actor, and draw attention to a crucial moment in the history of multiculturalism in Britain. And there were contemporary overtones: in an open letter to the community, Aldridge declared his belief that ‘Being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’

The aim was to bring this episode to the widest possible audience and to bring together, practically, the university, theatrical practitioners, and the local community.

The event was targeted generally at Coventry theatregoers and specifically at the city’s diverse – especially BAME – communities.

earl_cameron_cbe_laying_flowers_in_honour_of_ira_aldridgeWhat worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event(s)?

The involvement of the Black Youth Theatre and community choirs drew in young people and families. Against Prejudice was fully pre-booked several days in advance at an audience capacity 130.

Feedback was very positive.  The performances were highly praised, and especially the energy of the youth choir, brilliantly trained by Una May. Many comments, on the night and afterwards, were similar:

‘I never knew this about my city’;
‘As a black actor, this is MY story, why did I never hear it before?’
‘Why wasn’t I taught this at school? But look at these kids: they won’t forget ’

What, if any, other audience outcomes did you identify? What were the main outcomes for you and /or your organisation?

The event has launched a campaign to create a plaque in honour of Ira Aldridge as the first black manager of any British theatre. There are ongoing plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his death in August 1867, including an invitation from Poland (where he died).

What top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?

  1. Work with your comms team and carefully chosen partners. The Belgrade publicity department was fully involved, as were the communications department of Warwick University and the City of Culture Bid. So the West Midlands print media carried the story in depth (based on press releases), I gave three local radio interviews and another for the Observer, which published a full-page piece.
  2. Find a subject that really reflects the interests of your community and chosen audience. This level of co-operation was due to the intensely local nature of the subject matter and our desire to involve the community with the research. The aims of the University and the Belgrade synchronised from the first. As the feedback above suggests, this was a story that people really wanted to hear!