For a stage actor, there is no better compliment than being called a Roscius.
It’s a comparison to Quintus Roscius Gallus, a thespian from ancient Rome, largely considered the greatest actor of his time.
Ira Aldridge (1807–1867) began performing in New York’s African Grove Theatre Company (in the years before abolition) and went on to great fame and fortune in Europe, for his starring turns in Othello and other Shakespearean works.
The London Times dubbed him “The African Roscius.”
Avery Brooks, who won the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre in 2007, and has played Othello, King Lear and weighty stage roles from Willy Loman to Oedipus, stars in Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius in two Savannah performances this weekend.
Part of the Savannah Black Heritage Festival, it’s a production by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Brooks, who’s probably best known for his seven seasons as Commander Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, most recently portrayed singer Paul Robeson — another African–American pioneer — with the D.C.–based Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Brooks, clearly, is a Roscius for this generation. We spoke to him last week.
What can we tell people about this play?
Avery Brooks: It’s not a full–blown production as such. The fascinating thing is that it is curated. The whole notion of this moving–portrait thing that they developed there at the Portrait Gallery is as reflection of the ability to somehow bring to life what we see in two–dimensional static form. All that history is there on the screen behind.
Here’s a mythical conversation between Ira Aldridge and his daughter. What could they have said to each other? What would he have said? What would she have said? So it’s kind of a stream–of–consciousness thing, which is really interesting. It’s like a spirit talking to a live person.
What does it teach us about Ira Aldridge?
Avery Brooks: What it reveals is who he was, in the context of the time in which he lived. And also specific information about what he said, because he wrote letters. One of the fascinating things about him was that he promoted himself — in that period, if you can imagine. He did all the publicity. He booked himself. And then played, at the same time. That’s remarkable.
I guess this couldn’t have happened for him in the States?
Avery Brooks: No. That’s exactly why he left here. If you go back to the African Grove Theatre, they shut them down many times. Among other things, they said ‘You can’t do Shakespeare. It’s an abomination for black people to speak this language.’ So he left.
There’s this notion of “expatriate.” To find a way to live and express yourself in a human way. Without the bias, or the idea that black people are somehow inferior. Certainly culturally.
Did he express disappointment that he couldn’t come back, or didn’t come back?
Avery Brooks: The fact is, by the time he wanted to do it, that was at the end of his life so it didn’t happen. But he was completely engaged in what was going on in this country, with people of color. He remained very vigilant about such things. He remained very vigilant about oppression in the world as concerned people of color, especially in Haiti and other places.
He had great hope for this country. And I think the optimism that he reflected, even in that time, is symbolically very important in history. But also to understand the optimism that people of color have held for this country. He didn’t abandon it in that way, or denounce. He denounced those things which prevented everybody from having a fair chance. Even to his own peril.
Why isn’t he better known?
Avery Brooks: Through observation, not an indictment, that is a malady of America. Of this post-socio–historical hypnosis, where one does not connect with what went on two weeks ago, let alone 20 years ago, let alone 100. I would say that generationally now that’s changing, with the advent of the Internet where there’s lots more information.
But knowledge, as you know, is the connection. Knowledge is connecting.
That I am not in any way, for example, fooled by some acknowledgement of what I’ve done or what I’m doing. Because if it were not for Ira Aldridge, if it were not for Mary McLeod Bethune, Nat Turner, I’m not here. Ossie Davis. That’s why I’m here.
And I’m not fooled to thinking that I have somehow emerged to become something that these people struggled and died for — my ability to speak. My ability to talk about culture. My ability to express whatever it is on a human level, let alone artistically. I’m not fooled by any of it.
So I am humbled, therefore, in my ability to still be alive, and stand and speak.
Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius
Where: AASU Fine Arts Auditorium, 11935 Abercorn St.
When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18
Where: Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium, Savannah State campus, South Tompkins Road
When: At 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19