Ira Aldridge is one of those remarkable people we've known about for a long time, but who have been in recent years increasingly getting the attention they deserve.
His father sold straw for a living, but also was a lay preacher. Later scholars have speculated that young Ira might have gotten his first vocal training from his father, who not only had to have a strong voice to preach, but who also hawked his straw from a cart he took around New York City, which meant he must have needed a strong voice to attract customers.
Aldridge's real theatrical training came from the African Grove Theatre, though. William Alexander Brown founded the theatre in 1821 to perform amateur productions of plays by Shakespeare and others, including Brown himself, whose play King Shotaway was sadly lost. The actors were of African ancestry, including William Hewlett, the star of the company, who was particularly famous for playing Richard III.
At the African Grove Theatre, Aldridge played such parts as the Inca warrior Rolla in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro, but the company did not last long. The same year the African Grove Theatre began offering their performances in downtown Manhattan, the Park Theatre was rebuilt in the same neighborhood.
The Park Theatre offered professional performances by white actors for a predominately white audience, though African Americans like Aldridge did watch shows from the upper balcony. When white audience members saw how good the productions at the African Grove were, though, they started patronizing the amateur company, and this was too much for the managers of the Park Theatre to take. They began to harass Brown's company, and the African Grove Theatre was eventually burned down, likely at the instigation of the management of the Park Theatre.
Aldridge probably saw that if he was going to have any success as an actor, it wasn't going to be in his home country. He emigrated to Britain, and had some success playing roles including Othello. That's when the most famous portrayer of Othello on the British stage, Edmund Kean, collapsed during a performance playing opposite his son Charles and died a couple months later. The theatre needed a new Othello, and Aldridge was chosen for the part.
What happened next is recounted in Lolita Chakrabarti's wonderful play Red Velvet. Reviews of Aldridge's Othello were mixed, and some were openly hostile and explicitly racist. Aldridge ended up leaving London, instead touring provincial theatres in Britain as well as larger venues on the European continent. There, he won great renown not just in Othello, but also Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear, as well as dramas by Matthew G. Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, and others.
In 1846, the hack dramatist Auguste Anicét-Bourgeois wrote a play called Le Docteur Noir, and Aldridge had a new vehicle that would display his considerable talents as an actor. Anicét-Bourgeois seems to have written the play together with Philippe François Pinel Dumanoir, a melodramatist who would go on to adapt Uncle Tom's Cabin for the Théâtre de l'Ambigu-Comique in Paris. Le Docteur Noir might not have been great literature, but it did provide moments for great acting, and it appeared on the London stage in a translation by John Vilon Bridgeman and further adapted by Thomas Hailes Lacy.
In Bath, Bristol, and Dublin, Aldridge began performing another adaptation of the play by Thomas Archer. Eventually, however, he seems to have gotten frustrated with some of the piece's limitations, so he wrote his own adaptation, which was published in 1847. Aldridge's adaptation, The Black Doctor, gives particular emphasis to race and class, according to theatre scholar Keith Byerman, who did a thorough analysis of all the different texts.
The play begins on the Isle of Bourbon, now known as Réunion, in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. In the first scene, we hear of Pauline de la Reynerie, a French noblewoman whose life was saved by Fabian, the titular black doctor played by Aldridge. Pauline's mother was on a ship that is assumed to be wrecked, but it was her mother's wish that Pauline marry the Chevalier St. Luce. Meanwhile, Fabian has mysteriously disappeared, though some say "he has been observed wandering on the cliffs, but always avoiding anyone who appeared to seek him."
Scene Two takes place in Fabian's hut, where Pauline tracks him down and gives him a purse full of gold to distribute to the poor since he has refused payment for his services. She also tells him that a mysterious man has been sighted near her house, and we understand that the stranger is Fabian himself, who is in love with her. Pauline's mixed-race foster sister Lia is in love with a white clerk, and when Pauline says she will help her to marry the man in spite of racial prejudice, Fabian begins to have hope for his own prospects.
Wait... the doctor who saved her is now going to murder her? Well, it isn't much different from Othello killing Desdemona, is it? Unlike Othello, though, Fabian takes pity on his victim. Pauline, thinking she will die, confesses, "I have long, long loved you!" Hearing this, Fabian carries her to a rock where they are saved by a passing ship.
Act Two takes place at the house of Pauline's family in Paris. It turns out that her mother the Marchioness is not dead after all. Fabian and Pauline have been secretly married, but he is officially employed by her family as a servant, and the Marchioness clearly thinks very little of him. Instead, she wants Pauline to marry St. Luce so she can become a lady of honor to the Queen. (This is presumably Marie Antoinette, as the next act takes place at the outset of the French Revolution.) Pauline, distraught, tries to take poison rather than abandon her husband, but Fabian grabs the poison from her and flees from the room, promising the Marchioness he will restore her daughter to her since that is the only way to save his beloved Pauline.
The dramatic curtain at the end of the second act is exceeded in drama by a third act that takes place in the Bastille on the historic day of its storming in 1789. Both St. Luce and Fabian have been imprisoned in different cells in the Bastille. St. Luce is portrayed as a stuck-up fop, enraged that he can't get luxuries while in prison. Fabian, on the other hand, has been living in misery and trying to communicate with his friend Andre to get news of what is happening outside the prison. Revolutionaries storm the Bastille, freeing the prisoners, but it is too late for Fabian. Thinking Pauline is dead, he falls into an insanity, and the act ends with the cannons of the revolution sounding.
In the fourth and final act, we are transported forward to the year 1793, during the Reign of Terror. Pauline is considered an enemy of the people, since it was her family who was responsible for crimes against Fabian, the good black doctor who is now revered. Andre has been taking care of Fabian, who is still insane. When the mad doctor sees Pauline, it looks like she will be saved from the mob, but then Fabian sees St. Luce beside her, as well as a portrait of the Marchioness. Still thinking the Marchioness is alive and will kill Pauline if they are together, Fabian denies being her husband. A man in the mob fires a gun at Pauline, but Fabian throws himself in front of her, taking the bullet. With his dying strength, Fabian produces the proof of their marriage, saving Pauline at the cost of his own life.
If the play sounds melodramatic, well, it is in fact a melodrama, even including a musical chord at the moment Pauline sees her husband in the final act. Aldridge might not have been a great playwright, but he was a great actor, and the play he adapted no doubt provided a suitable vehicle to display his own talents.