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Stage and Screen Education and Inspiration The American Identity



How Aldridge Controlled His Identity as the "African Roscius"

How Aldridge Controlled His Identity as the African Roscius
Bernth Lindfors, professor emeritus of English and African literatures, University of Texas at Austin

BERNTH LINDFORS: Now Roscius is the name of a celebrated Roman actor of tragedy and comedy who had been a tutor of Cicero, and it became the custom in the British stage to call someone a Roscius if they showed precocious talent on the stage. There was a Kentucky Roscius, there's a Hibernian Roscius, there's an equestrian Roscius.

Well, Aldridge as the only black actor on the British stage from the African Theater in New York becomes the African Roscius, and in the Times review, which was damning of his performance, this is ironic, you see, it's used as a title to demean him. But he picks it up and when he starts touring, this is what appears on the playbills, "The African Roscius." So he's picking up on this derogatory term and making it positive. It's part of his theatrical strategy. He actually did a lot of this in his career. That is, using something negative in a positive way. He had a good sense of humor, I think, but he managed to then fabricate an African identity out of that name.

It took a few years as he started traveling in the provinces after his initial run in London. He would always be billed as the African Roscius and then they started adding on the playbills some little biographical details about himself and his father and his family, and eventually this got expanded to the point where it was said he was a native of Senegal and had been born and brought up the first eight or nine years of his life in Africa.

Now all this, you see, is an expansion, a fabrication, but it makes crowds interested to see him, because this is the first African on the stage doing legitimate drama, and it's really quite stunning for them with their expectations of what an African would be like.