On April 10, 1833, a 26-year-old American actor did the unthinkable. He stepped in front of the footlights of the largest and most prestigious theater in London to play Othello without makeup. His name was Ira Aldridge, and he was a "gentleman of colour," as the newspapers of the time described him. He was not the first black actor to play Shakespeare's Moor (that distinction belongs to Ignatius Sancho, an ex-slave and theater enthusiast who was given the role as an experiment in the 1760s), nor was his engagement at Covent Garden the first time he had acted the part. For eight years he has been portraying Othello in theaters all over England, Ireland, and the East End of London. What make this production special was its venue. The Theatre Royal, Convent Garde was the nation's most important playhouse, and only the best actors were invited to perform lading roles there. For Aldridge to act on its stage, at a time when there were more than two million slaves in the United States, was a tacit challenge to the American institution of slavery and to pro-slavery advocates in England. No one understood that better than the young actor himself.
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