The 19th century actor was just an aside in a lecture -- didn't even get mentioned by name. But student Charles S. Dutton took notice that day in 1980 when his theater history professor at Yale spoke briefly about "this black fellow who did Shakespeare."
"It fascinated me to hear that, 100 years before Paul Robeson, there was this black actor," said Dutton, who went to his teacher afterward and found that the actor's name was Ira Aldridge and that he was one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time.
Dutton, now a two-time Tony award nominee, learned more. The New York-born Aldridge was part of a lively black theater community based in "The African Grove Theater" in Greenwich Village. The group dispersed after white rowdies burned the theater, sending American black actors into an era when the only genre available to them was the minstrel show.
But Aldridge went on to have a tremendously successful 30-year acting career in Europe: performing Othello 350 times and romancing leading ladies. He died in Poland in 1867.
"It just excited me so much I wanted to resurrect his life story and tell people about him," said Dutton, who will be performing the one-act play he wrote about Aldridge's life at the 10-day Columbia Festival of the Arts, which begins tomorrow and runs through July 1.
Dutton knows first-hand about resurrection. Born in Baltimore in 1951, he forsook school at the age of 12 in favor of boxing and delinquency. He wound up serving time for a manslaughter conviction.
During his nine years in prison, however, Dutton discovered theater, earned a college degree and entered Yale's drama school. Since then, he has been identified with August Wilson's plays, including "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and, most recently, "The Piano Lesson."
In addition to his Monday performance of the Aldridge play, "The Prince of Senegal," at Howard County Community College, Dutton will be giving an acting class at noon Tuesday at Slayton House. (Admission to the class is free, but tickets are required.)
Dutton's performance of "The Prince of Senegal" is one of more than 55 events scheduled for this year's festival.
What was a three-day affair last year has expanded to 10 this year. It will showcase an eclectic combination of international, national and local performers -- from violinist Itzhak Perlman to a screening of a cult-classic movie, "Boy With the Green Hair."
The festival, which will be spread among nine locations in Columbia, includes chamber music, dance, jazz, African music, film, theater, children's entertainment and an Artisans' Show, with 46 artisans selected by a Maryland Institute of Art jury.
Probably the most renowned performer in the lineup is Perlman, who will be appearing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on July 1.
Under the direction of David Zinman, with guest conductor Hugh Wolff, the orchestra and Perlman will perform excerpts from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D. The concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion will be preceded by a community arts picnic from 4 to 7 p.m. in Symphony Woods. The picnic will feature music, children's art projects and puppets.
Another highlight will be a performance of Stephen Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Sunday in the Park with George." The musical is classic Sondheim, featuring an artist going against the grain of an overwhelming society, star-crossed lovers who do themselves in, lives rife with compromise, foolish choices, unexpected detours. The costumes, the originals used in the Broadway production, reflect the 19th-century French bourgeoisie depicted in the George Seurat painting, "A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," that inspired the musical.
Throughout the 10-day run of the festival, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, under the artistic direction of Fred Sherry, will be in residence, providing concerts, open rehearsals and coaching. Charles Wuorinen and William Bolcom, both prize-winning contemporary composers, will perform their pieces with the society.
The festival also will feature a performance by the innovative Pilobolus Dance Theater, known for its surreal, sculptural choreography.
Locally based performers appearing in the festival include the Columbia Pro Cantare chorus, Kinetics Dance Company and the Path Dance Company and Toby's Dinner Theater, which will be performing "Sunday in the Park with George."
At the Town Center Plaza, the festival's Lakefront Program includes more than two dozen performers and groups, including Charlie Byrd, the Annapolis Brass, Deanna Bogart and the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Orchestra.
The Maryland Museum of African Art will open an exhibit, African Expressions in American Art, during the festival. The museum also is sponsoring appearances by the Sankofa African Drummers and the Morgan State University Jazz Quintet.
Ticket prices range from $5 to $20. And many events are free to children 18 and under. For information on tickets and the full festival schedule, call the Festival Box Office at 381-0520 or contact the festival through the Montgomery County Exchange for the Deaf TTY number at 792-0755. Tickets are also available from the Howard County Community College Box Office, 964-4900, and for the Baltimore Symphony from Ticketron.