In his play "Ira: A Long Way From Home"--opening at 8 tonight at Chapman College--Henry Kemp-Blair reaches back to the turbulent 19th-Century world of a now-forgotten black American actor.
Even by today's standards, Ira Aldridge was no ordinary success. He was both a stage idol and oddity for his day: a black star on the otherwise all-white theatrical circuit in Britain and the Continent. Although he became famous throughout Europe in the mid-1800s, Aldridge never returned to America.
"Call him what you will--a curiosity piece, a superb actor. He was unique, a genuine pioneer of his day, a towering performer," said Kemp-Blair, who is also directing the play, which runs nightly through Sunday at the campus Waltmar Theatre in Orange.
Aldridge is being portrayed by Mic Bell, a Chapman alumnus and former member of the Fifth Dimension singing group. The last time Bell appeared at Chapman, he played Paul Robeson, the famed actor-singer and political activist, in a 1984 one-man show.
"Ira: A Long Way From Home" is a reworking of a play that Kemp-Blair, a longtime theater arts and communications professor at Chapman, first wrote and staged at the college in 1969. Choosing Aldridge as a subject was by "sheer accident," explained Kemp-Blair, who has done considerable studies on racial issues (he was born and raised in South Africa and came to the United States in 1946).
Recalled Kemp-Blair: "I had been searching for material for lectures (in the late 1960s) on the increasing black awareness in this country. I came upon a book--a very fine scholarly account of Aldridge--at a sale on campus.
"Aldridge's life fitted perfectly to what I was attempting to do. I wanted to discuss the black figures whose achievements in the arts were highly significant but remained ignored or forgotten," Blair said.
(Another recent work based on Aldridge's career is the musical "Born a Unicorn." Written and directed by Ted Lange, with songs by Beverly Bremers and Phyllis St. James, this version was presented in 1981 at the Los Angeles Cultural Center.)
From the book "Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian," a 1958 account by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock, and a few other English-language works, Kemp-Blair found that Aldridge spent his entire adult acting career in Europe.
Born in New York, the son of a lay preacher, Aldridge was a stage-struck youth appearing successfully in black theater in the mid-1820s. But Aldridge, then about 18, left for England when he realized no black actor could cross the color barriers in America, Kemp-Blair said.
In England, after serving an apprenticeship with the noted actor Henry Wallack, Aldridge established his style and reputation in only a few seasons. He played many of the celebrated Shakespearean parts, including Othello. He also won wide popularity in contemporary comedies and melodramas, particularly in those that called for "African" characters.
When Aldridge did play white characters--such as Shylock, Richard III or Lear--he did so in whiteface makeup (a practice being repeated by Bell in the Chapman production).
"He didn't win over the West End audiences (in London) until near the end of his life," Kemp-Blair said. "There was a critical claque, no doubt influenced by the pro-slavery temperament then, that attacked him viciously and relentlessly, including remarks about his physiognomy.
"But he was a great success throughout most of Britain. He may have been a racial oddity at first. Yet most audiences grew to appreciate him as an outstanding artist. His tours of Europe (starting in the early 1850s when Aldridge was in his 40s), proved to be complete triumphs. In Russia and other countries, he brought his productions to isolated areas that no other actor of his stature had traveled to."
For the rewritten version of "Ira: A Long Way from Home," Kemp-Blair said he is using a "more expressionistic, suggestive style" than he did in the 1969 production. This includes numerous film-projected images as backdrops for starkly designed sets. The production, one of the most ambitious for Chapman, has a cast of 31 actors (most of them students) and 80 speaking parts.
A crucial scene, Kemp-Blair said, is the confrontation between Aldridge and the legendary English actor Edmund Kean in Dublin in the early 1830s (both were performing there in separate productions of "Othello" at the time).
Also, Kemp-Blair depicts Aldridge performing in "The Merchant of Venice," "Richard III" and "Othello" on the grand tours of the Continent. On these visits, Aldridge performed in English, while the rest of the cast spoke in the local language (in the case of the Chapman scenes, French, German or Russian is used).
Underscoring his entire play, Kemp-Blair said, is the poignant character of Aldridge's white English wife, Margaret, and the "hostilities and resistance" the two faced as a mixed couple. The death in 1867 of Aldridge is handled as an offstage event by Kemp-Blair. (Long afflicted with a lung ailment, Aldridge died in Lodz, Poland, during a European tour, and was buried there.
"He was not a political activist in the way we think of today. But he was a man of strong convictions and great pride. He was known to give much of his own fortune to anti-slavery causes," said Kemp-Blair.
"The final sadness is that Ira Aldridge never returned home, and that he is, basically, a figure unknown to Americans."