Any actor who tackles one of Shakespeare’s great roles understands the long inheritance that they are a part of when it comes to portraying one of the iconic roles: Garrick, Kean, Olivier, and Dench are just a few names that spring to mind who have famously taken on the bard’s words. That legacy is magnified in the role of Othello, whose portrayal in the theater has often been one of cultural controversy. As diversity and authentic representation continue to be essential topics at the forefront of American theater, the history of this particular role sheds light on the importance of this ongoing conversation.
Enter Ryan Vincent Anderson, whose new one-man show, BRIGHT SWORDS, takes us through the life and work of Ira Aldridge, the first African American actor to portray Othello. BRIGHT SWORDS, which debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this summer to critical acclaim, is an original piece that Anderson developed with playwright Rick Creese. I had an opportunity to discuss the play with Anderson, as well as the importance of Aldridge’s legacy.
C.W.: First off, congratulations on your great success with BRIGHT SWORDS at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, where you earned an Encore performance slot! For those of us who may not be familiar with Ira Aldridge, can you give us a little background?
R.V.A.: Ira Aldridge was an actor and an activist in the 19th century. Although he was born and raised and educated in NYC, he fled to Europe at 18, to pursue his theatre career. Ira was a great actor, which we know from people’s reviews and stories about him. Throughout his career he received a very large amount of accolades, awards and titles from many important monarchical figures. He is the only actor of color to be honored among the 33 bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon. And he is the first black actor to play Othello on the premiere stages of London’s West End.
When you first heard his story, what piqued your interest the most?
I couldn’t believe that he existed. I knew of Paul Robeson, and of his amazing feats as an actor and activist in spite of the racial divide in America; but I was surprised to know that Ira was doing the same thing, one hundred years earlier. I do believe that Ira Aldridge’s career made it possible for Paul Robeson to do what he did because, although Ira never made it back to the states, his career had an impact on what was happening in American theater.
Did you feel it was important to tell this story now? If so, why?
I think it’s always important to tell stories of people that have made a lasting impression on society and generations long after they’ve died. I’m a storyteller. I love to entertain. But I also love to educate myself and others with things we might never have looked to learn otherwise. Ira’s story is both entertaining and educational. It’s also important because we need to remember how far we have come, and to not take things for granted. There was a time, not too long ago, when it was very unlikely for me to even be able to study acting at a top notch school and earn an MFA. I’m grateful for what Ira has done for me and for all actors of color. And for that I am honored to share what he went through. As an activist Ira preached equality when it was severely looked down on. He used his celebrity to get the word out and never backed down to naysayers. Unfortunately we are still, today, preaching equality in more ways than one. So it’s always important to have reminders of who passed the baton.
You collaborated with playwright Rick Creese to create BRIGHT SWORDS. What was it like to develop this piece?
I approached Rick Creese with Ira Aldridge in Septemeber of 2014 after our conversation of wanting to work together on a one man show. He loved the subject matter and took off with it. He is such an intelligent guy, and a voracious reader, which helped because he was able to gain enough information to write a first draft within a month after our meeting. I would come to his house and work on edits of his drafts with him. I’d share my thoughts, he would share his, and we would go back and forth like this quite a bit so that we were both happy with the direction of the piece and what we wanted to present. I’m lucky to have had such a modest and giving writer to work with because it made our creative development process fun.
The title of your show is taken from the line in OTHELLO “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” In your piece, how much do you incorporate Shakespeare’s words and world?
We don’t have as much of Shakespeare’s language in our play as people might assume before seeing it. And that’s because our story is more about Ira Aldridge than it is about Shakespeare. His biggest claim to fame was definitely his Othello, however he was well known for other non Shakespearean roles as well.
What does the future hold for you and BRIGHT SWORDS? Can we expect more performances soon?
We have already talked about expanding the piece to include an intermission. Right now it is running an hour. In the next version there will be more Shakespeare since it will include the bulk of his acting career which happens in Europe. Right now we are in talks to bring it to a festival in Santa Clarita, and we have definite dates in August (5 and 12) to do it at the Independent Shakespeare Company studio space in Atwater Village. We are also performing in NYC this November 11th in the United Solo festival. I have high hopes to tour the show to places such as universities and small theaters around the country in 2016.
You can see Ryan Vincent Anderson in BRIGHT SWORDS at Complex Theatres in Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 22nd. Tickets are available here for this performance. You can also click here to follow BRIGHT SWORDS on Facebook.