Thirty-three people are honored with plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, but only one of them, Ira Aldridge, is an African-American. At a time when the United States still held black people in slavery, Aldridge’s performances across Europe helped shatter the myth of white supremacy.
Our brilliant guest this week is author and screenwriter Andrea Chalupa, co-host of the must-listen “Gaslit Nation” podcast. Aldridge was born in 1807 in New York, and he and his parents were free. But, as Chalupa explains, he still faced the threat of becoming enslaved as he traveled the U.S.
Aldridge moved to London, where audiences embraced him, but the theater establishment didn’t. So he became a traveling performer, eventually earning Eastern Europe’s embrace.
Ira Aldridge’s performances in London coincided with intense debate over slavery in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, which emancipated slaves in the British colonies in 1832. (Slavery didn’t end in the U.S. until June 19, 1865 — two years before Aldridge died in Poland at the age of 60.)
As the debate over slavery raged, Aldridge would conclude his stage performances by speaking directly to audiences about the injustice of racism.
He found a kindred spirit in Taras Shevchenko, who was born a serf — the closest Russian equivalent of a slave. Shevchenko eventually bought his way to freedom and became Ukraine’s most celebrated poet and writer.
Though their cultural background couldn’t have been more different, and they barely spoke each other’s languages, Aldridge and Shevchenko bonded over their art, music, and their shared belief in freedom and equality.
And, because truth is stranger than fiction: A 15-year-old girl in Leo Tolstoy’s family served as their translator.
“It’s a story of why visibility matters, empathy matters, and injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” Chalupa says.
The story — and the example set by Aldridge and Shevchenko — may seem far-off and foreign. But Chalupa says the story resonates from Syria to modern Ukraine to Russia under Vladimir Putin and the United States under Donald Trump.
“Gaslit Nation,” which Chalupa hosts with Sarah Kendzior, reassures listeners that no, they aren’t crazy — it’s the world that’s gone crazy.
But not so crazy that we can’t fix it.
“There’s so much pain in the world, and we don’t have to go through it alone. We can share it together and help each other heal together,” Chalupa says. “I love these stories of people from seemingly different cultures finding solidarity in each other and propping each other up to get through this — and strengthening each other.”