University Libraries aims to expand underrepresented voices in the performing arts, thanks to a new endowment named for a young Black actor who pursued his dreams of acting on stage in the early 1800s.
The Ira Aldridge Fund will be used exclusively to broaden the creative voices represented in the Libraries’ performing arts collections housed in the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute (TRI).
“The endowment will inspire new generations by archiving more contributions from underrepresented creative artists from many areas, from theatre and dance to mime, movement, performance and puppetry. It will help us acquire materials that will enrich collections such as the Black Performance Collection, Asian American Theatre Collection, LGBTQ+ collections, indigenous performing arts materials and more,” explains Beth Kattelman, professor and curator of the TRI.
“Do we need a richer source of materials in these collections? Absolutely,” she adds. “They will be used in classes at Ohio State, in thesis work, in faculty and student research, and by the community. In the past, we were fairly homogenous in our performing arts materials, but this will give us a way to add more underrepresented and diverse voices. The endowment will fund these efforts in perpetuity, ensuring the support is always there, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Just exactly who was Ira Aldridge ... and why is the endowment named for him?
The idea came from LA-based actor, playwright and director Ted Lange, long-time friend of Ohio State theatre whose own TRI collection, the Ted Lange Papers, contains over 100 boxes of his professional and personal materials. Lange, who may be most widely known as Isaac the bartender in the classic television show “The Love Boat,” remembers when he first heard about Aldridge.
“One of the first things I did was play Romeo in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in San Francisco,” he said. Then 18, Lange proudly announced he was going to be one of the first Black actors to do so. It was quickly pointed out that he was too late, and he should learn about Ira Aldridge.
So he did, learning Aldridge was a young, Black actor in New York City’s African Grove Theatre in the early 1820s. Facing discrimination in America, he moved to England, where he became the first Black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello in Britain, and went on to become one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors in history.
Lange went on to write and produce a rock musical, “Born a Unicorn,” about Aldridge’s inspirational life and what it took to become a successful, Black actor during that time period.
He finds Aldridge’s story just as motivational today and sees the Ohio State initiative as a way to spread that inspiration. “Let’s let people learn about Ira Aldridge and enrich more diverse voices through these collections. That’s the beauty of this effort. We are at an inflection point (in our society) right now, and we need to celebrate the diversity of America, show different voices. That’s what this endowment is about -- embracing diversity and inspiring people to keep going.”
Lange also guest-directed “Red Velvet,” a biodrama about Aldridge at Ohio State in 2020. “We had the privilege of having Ted direct that piece with our students performing,” said Julie Beroukas Snyder, senior director of development. “Now, by honoring Ira Aldridge’s legacy, we can educate a much broader community about him and what his story can teach us.”
Snyder added, “As a research university and a public university, we have a responsibility for preserving works from all voices to build a really robust collection. These remarkably impactful works of art can help us understand who we are as humans, as communities, as Americans and as world citizens. We need to preserve not just a few types of resources but to showcase the full richness of creative voices.”