Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40)

- Keurig K-Cafe Special Edition; $190 (save $30)

- Ninja OS301 Foodi 10-in-1 Pressure Cooker and Air Fryer; $125 (save $75)

- Nespresso Vertuo Next Coffee and Espresso Machine by Breville; $120 (save $60)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75)

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $80 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10)

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $16 (save $11)

- HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

- Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31)

- TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

- Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

- Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30)

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening; $40 (save $20)

- Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity; $50 (save $10)

- Marvel's Avengers; $25 (save $33)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

- BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

- The Sims 4; $24 (save $20)

- God of Warfor PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

- Days Gonefor PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

- Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250)

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $335 (save $64)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $120 (save $79)

- Seneo Wireless Charger, 3 in 1 Wireless Charging Station; $16 (save $10)

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

- DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

Headphones and speakers

Beats/Amazon

- Beats Solo3 Wireless On-Ear Headphones; $120 (Save $80)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earphones; $175 (save $75)

- JBL Boombox; $280 (save $120)

Movies and TV

HBO/Amazon

- Game of Thrones: The Complete Series; $115 (save $89)

- Jurassic World 5-Movie Set; $23 (save $37)

- Deadwood: The Complete Series; $42 (save $28)

- Back to the Future Trilogy; $15 (save $21)

Toys and Games

Amazon

- Awkward Family Photos Greatest Hits; $15 (save $10)

- Exploding Kittens Card Game; $10 (save $10)

- Cards Against Humanity: Hidden Gems Bundle; $14 (save $5)

- LOL Surprise OMG Remix Pop B.B. Fashion Doll; $29 (save $6)

- LEGO Ideas Ship in a Bottle 92177 Expert Building Kit; $56 (save $14)

Furniture

Casper/Amazon

- Casper Sleep Element Queen Mattress; $476 (save $119)

- ZINUS Alexis Deluxe Wood Platform Bed Frame; $135 (save $24)

- ROMOON Dresser Organizer with 5 Drawers; $59 (save $11) 

- AmazonBasics Room Darkening Blackout Window Curtains; $26 (save $5)

- Writing Desk by Caffoz; $119 (save $21)

- SPACE Seating Office Support Managers Chair; $112 (save $116)

- Rivet Globe Stick Table Lamp; $53 (save $17)

- Christopher Knight Home Merel Mid-Century Modern Club Chair; $188 (save $10)

- Walker Edison Furniture Industrial Rectangular Coffee Table; $121 (save $48)

Beauty

Haus/Amazon

- MySmile Teeth Whitening Kit with LED Light; $21 (save $12) 

- Cliganic USDA Organic Lip Balms Set of Six; $6 (save $4)

- HAUS LABORATORIES By Lady Gaga: LE RIOT LIP GLOSS; $7 (save $11)

- Native Deodorant for Men and Women Set of Three; $25 (save $11) 

- BAIMEI Rose Quartz Jade Roller & Gua Sha; $14 (save $3)

- Honest Beauty Clearing Night Serum with Pure Retinol and Salicylic Acid; $20 (save $8)

- WOW Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo and Hair Conditioner Set; $30 (save $5) 

- La Roche-Posay Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser; $15 (save $5)

- wet n wild Bretman Rock Shadow Palette; $9 (save $6)

- EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Face Sunscreen Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid; $25 (save $6)

Clothes

Ganni/Amazon

- Ganni Women's Crispy Jacquard Dress; $200 (save $86) 

- The Drop Women's Maya Silky Slip Skirt; $36 (save $9)

- Steve Madden Women's Editor Boot; $80 (save $30)

- adidas Women's Roguera Cross Trainer; $40 (save $25)

- Line & Dot Women's Elizabeth Sweater; $74 (save $18)

- Levi's Men's Sherpa Trucker Jacket; $57 (save $41)

- Adidas Men's Essentials 3-Stripes Tapered Training Joggers Sweatpants; $28 (save $12)

- Timex Men's Weekender XL 43mm Watch; $32 (save $20)

- Ray-Ban Unisex-Adult Hexagonal Flat Lenses Sunglasses; $108 (save $46) 

- Reebok Men's Flashfilm Train Cross Trainer; $64 (save $16)

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A Hair-Raising History of the Flowbee

The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
I Love Fun, YouTube

Like many great ideas, there is some confusion surrounding how California-based carpenter Rick Hunts was struck by inspiration for the Flowbee. The infomercial sensation of the late 1980s is a vacuum cleaner attachment that straightens hair, munches on it with clippers, and then sucks the trimmings into the canister.

In one version, Hunts is beguiled by a television show he saw in 1979 that demonstrated a person getting their hair cut while hanging upside-down, freeing their locks for clipping. Another has Hunts using a vacuum to get sawdust from his workshop out of his hair and having an epiphany.

The latter sounds more like the kind of mythologizing that accompanies inventors—one questions the wisdom of using a vacuum to remove sawdust from their hair rather than simply showering—but it doesn’t matter much. However he came upon the notion, Hunts’s vision of an at-home substitution for a barber was the Soloflex of hairstyling. It promised convenience, affordability, and the novelty of boasting your hair had been trimmed by a Hoover upright.

Hunts’s device, which he initially dubbed the Vacucut, took six to seven years to develop. By one estimate, he went through four prototypes—the last one involving 50 modifications—before he perfected the vacuum attachment. (Hunts’s children—or, more specifically, their hair—were used for testing.) The Vacucut took hair anywhere from a half-inch to six inches in length and, thanks to the suction of the vacuum, pulled it straight in the same way a stylist holds hair between their fingers. Once extended, clippers inside the attachment trimmed the excess, which wound up in the vacuum.

It required no skill and no additional pairs of hands; the length was adjustable using the included spacers. Owing to the air flow and the fact the device made a buzzing noise similar to a bee, Hunts decided to rename it the Flowbee, with a bumblebee-esque black and yellow color scheme.

Hunts, who raised more than $100,000 from investors and even sold his cabinet shop to obtain additional funds to mass market his creation, clearly felt the Flowbee would be a slam-dunk. He approached major personal grooming companies like Conair, Norelco, and Remington to see if they’d be interested in the Flowbee. He also approached beauty salons to see if they’d consider selling them to customers. He later recalled that all of them said the idea was nuts. In the case of the salons, they were afraid the Flowbee might actually work as advertised and see a reduction in foot traffic from people content to cut their own hair. 

Dismayed, Hunts took to trying to move product out of his garage. He also went to county fairs, where he would have a volunteer come up on stage. One side of the person’s head would be trimmed with scissors, the other side with the Flowbee. The results were comparable, and Hunts began selling a modest amount of inventory at $150 each.

The reaction of the county fair crowd may have been on Hunts’s mind when he saw an infomercial one evening for a food-sealing product. The program-length paid advertisements were really just barker shows broadcast to a mass audience. The Flowbee, Hunts knew, needed to be demonstrated. So Hunts spent $30,000 to produce and buy airtime for a 30-minute spot that began airing in 1988. Soon, the entire country was watching people aim a vacuum nozzle at their heads and clip their own hair.

The Flowbee entered popular culture, getting mentions in films like 1992’s Wayne’s World, where Garth (Dana Carvey) is menaced by a Suck Kut, and on shows like Party of Five. Imitators like the RoboCut and the Hairdini appeared to bite into market share, but the Flowbee enjoyed brand recognition. A Flowbee Pet Groomer was introduced, and Flowbee barbershops were considered. By 1992, the Flowbee was being sold in major retail chains. By 1993, Hunts’s San Diego-based company, Flowbee International, had sold 200,000 units. By 2000, the number was 2 million. While that may not sound like a lot, consider that this was a vacuum cleaner attachment selling for $69.95 to $150 retail that was intended for use on one’s head.

While millions of people enjoyed the Flowbee’s kitsch appeal, some people thought it sucked. Stylists believed it lacked the artistry of a professional, while others complained it wasn’t effective on hair longer than six inches or on curly locks. It was also difficult for the Flowbee to trim the sides or around the ears. George Clooney, however, swears by it; in December 2020, he admitted that he's been using one to cut his own hair for decades.

While they no longer air infomercials, Flowbee International is still in business—and has seen increased interest in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as people avoid salons and look for alternatives to becoming Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, health concerns have prompted a cessation of activity at the Flowbee factory in Kerrville, Texas. They don’t intend to ship new product (which now sells for $99) until things settle down. The RoboCut, however, is still shipping.