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André De Shields
photos by Pavlo Terekhov

Shona Tucker reads with Olga Shuhan

Professor Bernth Lindfors



Introduction by André De Shields

Poem: “Letter to My Countrymen Dead, Alive and Not Yet Born”
by Taras Shevchenko, 1845

Poems: “The Sky’s Unwashed” & “A Cloud Floating Behind the Sun”
by Taras Shevchenko, 1848 , read bilingually by Shona Tucker & Olga Shuhan

Poem: “I Mark the Days and Nights”
by Taras Shevchenko, 1850, read by Sean Eden

Lecture “Ira Aldridge and Taras Shevchenko” by Bernth Lindfors

Poem: “We Sang Then Parted”
by Taras Shevchenko, 1850, read by Maria Pleshkevich

video clip with “New Jerusalem” from Dark Night Bright Stars

Poem: “It’s All the Same to Me”
by Taras Shevchenko, 1847, read by Sean Eden

Poem: “Testament”
by Taras Shevchenko, 1847, read by Sean Eden

conceived & directed by Virlana Tkacz
translations into English by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

November 1, 2014
The Ukrainian Museum
New York City


One of the more original and thought-provoking tributes during the Shevchenko bicentennial year was presented by The Ukrainian Museum and the Yara Arts Group on November 1. "Ira Aldridge and Taras Shevchenko: Two Icons and Friends" explored the little-known but significant friendship between the acclaimed African American actor and the Ukrainian poet.

The evening was part lecture, part poetry performance, and included a video from Kyiv of Yara's new theatrical piece,"Dark Night Bright Stars," about Shevchenko and Aldridge, which will premiere in New York in February 2015 (an earlier work-in-progress previewed in March of this year).

In a coup for Yara Arts Group and a special treat for the audience, the program was introduced by Broadway star André De Shields, best known for his performance in the title role of "The Wiz" in 1975 and later for "Ain't Misbehavin' " in 1978. Mr. De Shields highlighted the debt that he and all African American actors have to the trailblazing Aldridge, calling him the "father of the dream" that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in 1963.

Mr. De Shields drew parallels between Aldridge and Shevchenko: both artists, both fighters against slavery in their countries, both highly identified with their people. He concluded with a reading in English of Shevchenko's "Letter to My Countrymen Dead, Alive and Not Yet Born" that brought a new depth and universality to the iconic poem. Museum member Cathy Zadoretzky said it was "a stunning historical moment, and an honor to be present when an artist of his stature linked the legacy of African American icons with Shevchenko and Ukraine."

Bernth Lindfors, professor emeritus at the University of Texas and an Aldridge scholar, described the life of Aldridge in the context of his time, focusing on his relationship with Shevchenko.

Aldridge was born in 1807 in New York City to a free Black family. While not a slave himself, his artistic possibilities were severely limited by slavery and institutional racism. Like many African American artists who made the journey since, Aldridge traveled to Europe, where he eventually found great honor and acclaim. He was best known for his portrayals of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, including Othello, Macbeth, Shylock and King Lear.

Aldridge met Shevchenko during his first tour of Russia in 1858, not long after Shevchenko had been released from compulsive military service in Central Asia as punishment for writing poems satirizing Tsar Nicholas I. Despite the barrier of language, the two immediately became fast friends, sharing similar artistic temperaments, values and politics. Aldridge was shocked to learn that Shevchenko, a white man, had been born a slave (serf) and that his freedom had been purchased in 1838 through the efforts of his friends. The two men also shared a bond of sorrow, both losing their mothers at the early age of 9.

The friendship culminated in Shevchenko drawing the actor's portrait, and it was signed by both men. The original, owned by the Shevchenko Museum in Kyiv, is currently on loan to The Ukrainian Museum in New York as part of the comprehensive and well-organized exhibit "Taras Shevchenko: Poet, Artist, Icon" (on view through November 30).

Prof. Lindfors said Shevchenko and his circle of artist friends were captivated by Aldridge as an actor and interpreter of Shakespeare, attending every performance in St. Petersburg and sometimes becoming so emotionally overwhelmed that they were evicted from the theater – this despite not understanding a word of the original English spoken by Aldridge. His performance conveyed a shared understanding of the human condition – including the enslavement of both their peoples – that transcended language. The evening at The Ukrainian Museum also included stirring performances of several Shevchenko poems, in Ukrainian and English, by Yara artists Sean Eden, Maria Pleshkevich, Olga Shuhan and Shona Tucker. Yara's Artistic Director Virlana Tkacz conceived and directed the program, and translated the poems with African American poet Wanda Phipps.

Mr. De Shields began the evening by proposing that the artist is primarily a storyteller, that stories have the power to keep the faith and can heal wounds. Aldridge and Shevchenko were two storytellers who changed the course of history – their bright stars still speak to us in our own dark night.

Mary Kalyna, "Presentation explores 'Ira Aldridge and Taras Shevchenko: Two Icons and Friends'" The Ukrainian Weekly, November 16, 2014

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Photos by Pavlo Terekhov

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