Art Surrounds Me: The Sable Series

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For Black History Month, I’ve tried to go to as many events as possible. My mother received information about a black historical play named The Sable Series: The History of Black Shakespearean Actors from Facebook and we knew that we had to go.

Written by Debra Ann Byrd and Dathan B. Williams, The Sable Series pays tribute to three famous black Shakespearean actors: Ira Aldridge, Henrietta Vinton Davis and Paul Robeson. Starring Debra Ann Byrd, Dathan B. Williams and James Edward Becton, the play combines an autobiographical narration, reenactments of their performances in some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, the performers bring history and Shakespeare to life.

Before viewing The Sable Series, I knew only of Paul Robeson, having learned and seen his video of his performances as a student. I had not heard of Ira Aldridge and Henrietta Vinton Davis. Which is really unfortunate because while I’ve known about other black Shakespearean actors (William Marshall and Ron O’Neal, to name a few), I was not aware of how far back our history is connected to Shakespeare in terms of the theatrical society.

Ira Aldridge (July 24 1807-August 7 1867)

Ira Aldridge was born in New York City in 1807 and it appears that he was born “free” to parents who worked in the ministry. Aldridge attended the renowned African Free School in Greenwich Village and discovered acting at a young age, having been exposed to theatre productions at the Park Theatre and African Grove Theatre; two of New York’s leading theaters. He began his acting career performing in local Shakespearean productions but emigrated to England because of the limited opportunities available to black actors of his time and the persistent discrimination he faced.

In England, he made his European debut at the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1825, becoming the first African American to establish a theatrical career in Europe. It was at the Royal Coburg that Aldridge established his career and progressed in roles that led to larger parts which were well received socially and critically. Aldridge continued to perform and tour all over Europe and on to Russia and Prussia until his death in 1867. Along the way he received top honors from heads of state in Russia and Poland.

Ira Aldridge has the distinct honor of being the first African American recognized for his Shakespearean performances. His infamy and legacy made him a hero to other African American actors who had studied him and led many to name theatrical troupes after him.

Henrietta Vinton Davis (August 25 1860-November 23 1941)

Henrietta Vinton Davis was a dramatist, elocutionist, and impersonator. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland raised between Maryland and Washington D.C. Her birth father was a musician and after his death, her mother remarried to a local leader, George A. Hackett. When her stepfather died, the family relocated to Washington DC where she was educated and began teaching at the age of fifteen. She taught in local schools in Maryland and Louisiana before beginning a second career as a Recorder of Deeds under Frederick Douglass, noted abolitionist and civil rights activist. It should be noted that she was the first African American woman to be appointed in this position.

While working as a Recorder of Deeds, Vinton Davis began training in elocution and dramatic art and within a few years was introduced by Douglass to an integrated audience that acted as the beginning of her professional career. Vinton Davis then went on to tour several states in the Northeast including New York , Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Under known management, she continued on other tours and also began to perfect her craft by studying at the Boston School of Oratory.

Professionally Vinton Davis performed as a Shakespearean actor and also performed the dialects of Paul Laurence Dunbar and works of Mark Twain and Friedrich Schiller. She performed with the John A. Arneaux troupe in New York City for a few years before moving to Chicago and creating her own company. With her company, she traveled the United States, and the Caribbean. History tells us that she used one of the first African American dolls during a performance of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Little Brown Baby with Sparkling Eyes.”

Politically, Henrietta Vinton Davis became a noted supporter of Marcus Garvey and his movement. She gave up her theatrical career to work with Garvey and his UNIA organization.  She quickly rose within the ranks and helped Garvey to further the organization and its efforts to unite black people from all over the world.  After Garvey was imprisoned and then deported, she continued her works with the UNIA until 1934 when she joined a newly formed rival organization and worked as its president until her death in 1941.

Paul Robeson (April 9 1898-January 23 1976)

Paul Robeson was born and raised in Princeton, New Jersey to parents involved in ministry.  His father was a minister of a Presbyterian church there and later in Sommerville, New Jersey where Robeson attended high school.  A gifted speaker and singer, Robeson also excelled academically and athletically.  And despite overt racism of the time, he performed well in sports and earned an academic scholarship to Rutgers University. 

While at university, Robeson became only the third African American student enrolled at Rutgers and also made their Scarlet Knights football team.  In addition, he joined the debating team, performed with the Glee Club, joined other collegiate athletic teams, among other contributions.  He graduated class valedictorian, as a member of Phi Betta Kappa and Cap and Skull; and also with several oratory awards and varsity letters. 

Paul Robeson went on to law school, first at NYU and then to Columbia.  While in graduate school he met his future wife and also began performing as a dramatic actor in local and off-Broadway productions.  He postponed his education in law school for a few years as he was also recruited to play in the National Football League and to perform dramatically.  He retired from the NFL, finished law school and had a brief career as a lawyer before pursuing a career in the arts with the support of his wife, Eslanda Goode.

Robeson went on to become an international star, performing in Broadway productions, Shakespearean plays and film productions.  He is noted for his performance in Emperor Jones, Showboat, Sanders of the River, among others.  Robeson performed in the States and abroad including Britain and Russia where he performed on some of Europe’s biggest stages.

After World War II, Paul Robeson became politically aware and active.  He began championing civil rights and against war, racism and fascism and colonialism, using his name and platform to speak out.  He would come to sympathize with communism which caused him to be blacklisted from Hollywood following the Red Scare and the McCarthy era.  His passport was revoked and he was unable to perform in the States or abroad for several years.

Paul Robeson returned to performing when his passport was restored in 1958.  He embarked on a world tour of Europe and Russia.  During this time, he and his wife began to experience health problems.  Still, he continued working, touring Australia and New Zealand, to generate money while also championing inequality and civil rights including the rights of the Australian Aborigines.  Eventually Robeson’s wife died in 1965 and he suffered a major health breakdown which forced him into retirement and out of the spotlight.  He lived his remaining years quietly in Harlem and in Philadelphia, issuing public statements of support for the civil rights movement and other activism until his death.

Hearing the history, training, struggles and triumphs of Aldridge, Davis and Robeson. All three dramatists faced racial discrimination, roadblocks and adversity; but all were able to make a difference both personally and professionally.

Their stories were incredible to hear and especially motivating as a black woman and as a creative person. The trials and tribulations that these artists experienced really made me recall the mantra: “It is because of them, that we can.”

Here’s to our pioneers who were the “first” of our people to do remarkable things for our culture.

Naj