Man of the times: Theatre by the Lake on one of Britain’s earliest black actors

Kevin Bourke

Wyllie Longmore’s play, Speak Of Me As I Am, pays tribute to a Shakespearean master.

These days Wyllie Longmore might be a hugely respected actor, director and teacher, but when he first came from Jamaica to this country in 1961 he was horrified by the racism that effectively barred young blacks like himself from going into theatre, except in the most limited roles. Then he and a pal took a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was surprised and moved to find a plaque honouring Ira Aldridge, a black actor who came to Britain from America in 1824 (and whose portrait, incidentally, is part of Manchester Art Gallery’s collection). Despite being regarded as one of the great interpreters of Shakespeare in his lifetime, in roles such as Shylock, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello, Aldridge’s career was constantly interrupted by racist attacks in the press, especially in London. He died in 1867 and, for decades, remained largely forgotten.

It’s a meditation on how things have changed – and how they haven’t at all

“In a sense, this play has been living with me since then, although it took decades for writer Maureen Lawrence and myself to bring it to fruition,” says Longmore of Speak Of Me As I Am, an extraordinary one-person play framed as a discussion, sometimes an argument, between Aldridge and a 21st-century black actor called Wyllie who is looking back over his career. “When we began working on this piece, after I’d reached the cusp of my seventieth birthday and took stock of what I had done and what I needed to do, very little was known about Aldridge’s life. But I wasn’t very interested anyway in dressing up as a 19th-century black actor in a drama,” he says.

“I wanted to have a conversation with this man. That’s why it’s a read piece, not a learned piece of theatre, where people might get caught up in me playing two parts. I wanted to ask him about his life and argue with some of the decisions he made, like “white-ing up” for some roles. At the same time I wanted to bring him into our time, to tell him what it’s like being a black actor in the 21st century. It’s a meditation on how things have changed – and how they haven’t at all.”

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