Know Your History: Ira Aldridge and Avery Brooks

Avery Brooks
Avery Brooks

Avery Brooks, 21st century Shakespearean actor, will portray 19th century Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge in Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius as part of the Savannah Black Heritage Festival, February 18, 2012 at 7:00 p.m. on the stage of the Fine Arts Theater at AASU.

Aldridge was born in New York City in 1807 just before the close of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808. In New York, during his childhood, Aldridge was introduced to the possibilities of life in the theater while a student of the African Free School. Running errands for the first theater that was owned and operated by black Americans called African Grove, Aldridge at age 16 decided to challenge his father’s plans for a life in the Christian ministry and took passage in 1824 aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean for Liverpool, England. Although this journey did not include the risks of kidnapping in the legal trade in slave labor on the Atlantic, with that trade closed the year after his birth, illegal traders pirated ships whenever they could and their activities surely increased the risks for this 16-year-old young man of African descent. Soon after his arrival Aldridge entered the English Victorian Theater to perform on its stage.

The stage on which Aldridge performed was much larger than the city of London, its provinces, and the many theaters throughout Europe from which he performed including Poland (where he died), Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. His father Daniel crossed the Atlantic to leave West Africa we are told as a son of a princely line. The New York City Theater where Aldridge got his first taste of life on stage was itself steeped in the rich culture of the Black Atlantic World and its coastal places and space

Aldridge was held in high esteem in the Caribbean from which much of his earliest inspirations must have come. Only three years after his departure from New York, Aldridge received his first official recognition as a performing artist from the Black Atlantic World of the Caribbean. On December 2, 1827 the government of Haiti honored him as the first man of color in the

Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge
theater offering him a commission in the Haitian army.

Avery Franklin Brooks was born April 18, 1949 in Evansville Indiana but was raised from the age of eight in the Jackson Five’s hometown of Gary. His immersion into music came at an early age, piped through virtuoso voice, organ and piano performances of family members His father sang with the gospel group Wings Over Jordan while his mother, one of the first women of color to graduate from Northwestern University with a master’s degree in music, taught music and directed church choirs. From this musical talented family, Brooks emerged as a gifted jazz piano player and a resonant baritone operatic vocalist. .

After graduation Brooks hit the stage and starred in several lead roles in Shakespeare plays like Lear, Othello and Tesus and Oberon in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.

He also starred in the Anthony Davis’ Opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. In 1993, Avery Brooks competed against 100 other actors to become the first African-American to play a lead captain in the long running acclaimed Star Wars series. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Brooks played Benjamin Sisko.

Brooks continues to perform. He has lent his voice to narrating documentaries. On the big screen he is also known for his role as Dr. Bob Sweeney in the 1998 film “American History X.” Brooks also appeared in the 2011 documentary “The Captains,” which stars and was directed by William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk in the original “Star Trek” series and films.

Most people are familiar with his television works. In 1985, he played the enigmatic assassin for hire Hawk on the popular ABC Television detective series “Spenser: For Hire for four years.”

Brooks has recently performed in a one man tribute to the life of African American thespian legend Ira Aldridge. The work, Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius, was commissioned by the Marc Pachter Fund and written by Jacqueline Lawton.

It was produced by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture. The tribute is a part of a ongoing series called Cultures in Motion.

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