The American Ira Aldridge (1807–1867) was the first black actor to play a Shakespearean role in Britain. He was 17 when he made his debut as Othello at the Royalty Theatre in London’s East End in May 1825. He then travelled widely in Europe, making him one of the most widely seen performers of his day.
Aldridge toured continuously because theatre managers would not employ him for longer periods or pay him as much as white actors. He was especially well received by audiences outside London, who flocked to see the novelty of a black actor and were rewarded with a performance beyond their expectations.
On this playbill for Othello in Northampton in 1831, Aldridge is never named directly. Instead he is billed as the ‘African Roscius’, after a former slave who became the greatest actor of ancient Rome. The bill says ‘he is the only Actor of Colour, that was ever known, and probably the only instance that may ever again occur’. It claims that Aldridge is descended from Senegalese royalty, but this is a typical piece of ‘puff’, a falsehood concocted to attract audiences.