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Interview: Debra Ann Byrd of BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY at Shakespeare & Company

The Tree Has Been Shook.

Interview: Debra Ann Byrd of BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY at Shakespeare & Company
Debra Ann Byrd
Photo: Lia Chang

BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY opens July 16 at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. The piece is positioned as a "multimedia theatrical production with lyrical language, soulful songs and the music that shaped the life of a resilient little girl growing up in Spanish Harlem." It has been described as an "autobiographical solo show" also, a "living memoir".

The production is directed by S&Co. founder, Tina Packer, who has been described as "one of the world's living experts on the Bard". Given the venue and Packer's involvement, we thought, the piece will have something to do with Shakespeare's Othello. And yet, there must be more to it. We caught up with writer and performer, Debra Ann Byrd and asked: Without giving too much away, can you help us understand, is this piece about gender, race, sexuality, privilege, opportunity, systemic issues?

Debra Ann began by expressing gratitude for the opportunity to "try and articulate what this thing is because it is very layered". She continued, "because my life is very layered, and often complicated."

Interview: Debra Ann Byrd of BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY at Shakespeare & Company "First of all, the Othello part comes from this girl, Debra Ann, who had a dream of playing Othello. That dream was born out of seeing a production of John Barton's PLAYING SHAKESPEARE. "My mind was blown. My heart was racing, my tears were falling. I didn't know what was happening to me at the time. I only knew that I had to play that role."

"It took me about thirteen years to realize that goal. When I finally got the chance to play Othello, I asked my director, am I a female Othello or a male Othello? She replied: Debra Ann, this is a man's story. I thought, okay, I know there are female generals now-a-days and thought about setting it in the contemporary world. Then I thought, what are they going to think if I am a girl with another girl? I needed to figure out how we were going to achieve that. We learned all kinds of things: how to sit, how to speak, how to drop my voice low and speak (in lower octave) this way all of the time. I began to practice that. I watched men and practiced."

"Everything started to change. Normally I wear my hair long flowing and straight. When I had to play Othello, I shifted my hair to a short little afro. No make-up, no jewelry, no perfume, nothing that smacks of a woman. The people around me did not understand. The world became a different place. People on the bus usually get up and give me their seat, most of the time people hold the door open for me. Even just walking down the street, people smile at me, often. None of that happened when I was becoming Othello. I was paying attention to everything that was happening around me, especially when the people I knew began to react. Sometimes their reactions were funny, and silly, and we were laughing and having a good time. At other times, it was painful."

Interview: Debra Ann Byrd of BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY at Shakespeare & Company
Debra Ann Byrd as Othello
Photo: Hubert Williamsa??a??a??

"So, we have an actor's journey toward becoming Othello, that's one journey. Then this gender flip that happened and the world around me that changed, that's another. On top of that, my female body began to tell me, hey - I'm really a girl! During rehearsal I had a sword and I'm swinging the sword and I hit across my breasts. The pain from that shot to my head and reminded me that I'm a girl in the middle of rehearsal! When I am playing a Jamaican woman, I speak with an accent, and I speak that way ALL the time; nothing can break me from speaking that way. Same thing is true when I am playing a man. Nothing can jar me - nothing. I needed to be, not only a man, I needed to be a general. I needed to be a leader; I needed to be someone that other men would follow."

"As I was building this character for the stage, my life began to change. I thought about gender, and I thought about the people who were not so nice to me during the process. The pain of rejection that I received, especially from men". At this point we felt it important to clarify there had been no statement or reference to Debra Ann's sexuality (identity, preference, etc.) to which she replied: "right". She added: "But... there are other layers." To which we enthusiastically responded - bring it on!

Interview: Debra Ann Byrd of BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY at Shakespeare & Company
Debra Ann Byrd, Natalie Andrews
Photo: Yasmine Lawler

"When I was playing Othello, my Desdemona kept asking, when are you going to kiss me? I was saying, I am going to kiss you soon, because well, you must do it at some point. Another part of my mind was saying, I don't want to kiss her in rehearsal, because then people will know that I want to kiss her." Debra Ann also shared that she "was fighting with myself about the sexuality. I was a leader within my community, the ex-wife of a reverend. These things would jeopardize my position and station in the world. It was really weird."

It became clear that Debra Ann has faced societal tendencies to label and contextualize individuals. Also, that her original statement as to BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY being "very layered" was accurate. With her assurance that the piece has elements dealing with gender, race, and sexuality; we asked specifically: what about opportunity and privilege? Debra Ann stated emphatically that they are there as well, adding that "while all the elements discussed can be compartmentalized, and I could have written a story about each one - my crazy self, decided to write a story about all of them because it is all, who I am. This actress who is trying to find Othello's pain."

"I went back and searched my own life for the pain spots to understand. What is it like when you think that your boyfriend or your girlfriend is seeing someone else? I do not need a Iago to make me upset, I'm already upset. When he pours it on, of course, that fuels the fire. Then, with all the gender stuff we had started seeing, I thought back to when I was a young person. When I was in junior high school, I took cooking class, sewing class, and because I loved them, I took ceramics and metal shop too. I did the things the girls did; I did the things boys did. I played jump-rope, and I played tag football. I braided hair with the girls, and I rode and fixed bikes with the boys. I did everything that everyone did, and no one ever told me I could not. But now that I am a grown person, people are telling me that I am wrong. My wearing simple neutral clothing, short hair, no makeup, disturbed the air for everyone."

"So, I was going about my life, and then my daughter's life started to fall apart. She was ill and began to die. And I began to die because I could not help her. When I chose to rise, I had to figure out what to do with myself. I realized the answer was theatre. I would continue in theatre and would try the Shakespeare thing. I interviewed with a theatrical agent. He told me that I was not going to have a career in the classics because I was a brown girl. I was beyond crazy."

"I decided that I was going to start a theatre company where classically trained actors of color graduating with BFAs and MFAs would have center stage opportunities. No one would be able to say I can't find those classically trained actors. They are over there, in Harlem with Debra Ann. I needed us to have an opportunity to build our resumes and our confidence. Imagine going to school for 4 years, learning everything everyone else learns. Then, they hold auditions and you are holding a damned spear...when you really have the talent to play Richard. We needed to right that wrong. That became my social justice mission. So, I stopped acting and started producing." Focused on administration and management of the newly formed company, Debra Ann stayed off the stage for 7 years. When she returned to performing, she played Cleopatra, then Lady Bracknell, and then felt it was time to play Othello.

Interview: Debra Ann Byrd of BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY at Shakespeare & Company
Debra Ann Byrd
Photo: Lia Chang

"I know all too well, the privilege and opportunities that do not exist, and the privilege of people saying I'm sorry you don't fit here. With your facility for language, perhaps you should try your hand at August Wilson. I was completely blown away. You will see in the play, I was sad, and crying, and losing my damned mind after spending all the time and money."

"I was doing all those crazy things all at once. I continually needed to figure it out. When I think about the things that helped me figure it out over and over again, it was the King James Bible. I realized that the King James Bible reminded me of Shakespeare, and that's why I liked Shakespeare. It had the same words and the same rhythmic patterns. I grew up with the King James Bible. The Bible was part of church, and church meant faith. Faith helped me be strong, and figure out all these crazy things that were happening to this little girl called Debbie. Over the years, faith helped me to hold on just a little bit longer. It is hard to mix faith with gender, especially when gender crosses over to another gender."

"I have to say that BECOMING OTHELLO taught me how to get over things that I am. I'm a mixed-race girl, and I am on the fairer side of blackness. I had so many issues with colorism and racism, and all the isms that I needed to tell this story. I figured if I could tell my complicated story and the audience members are listening, no matter where they come from; what race, what religion... everyone is going to find something they can relate to. Hopefully, they will get the lessons that are reflected."

"Now, I don't just tell a story and leave it there. I give you how I overcame, what it was like, who my mom is. I let everyone know what the entire journey was. I start with the fact that I am a mixed-race person, so my ancestors are black AND white." Debra Ann broke it down further and shared that in addition to Portuguese, she is "6% Spanish, 10% England Wales and Northern Europe, mostly African from at least 6 different tribes or regions." She said that "when I talk about my global self, it helps people feel that they are included too". She explained that her words tell a tale different from that which we see with our eyes, and that "we are all like that, and people begin to look at themselves".

We agreed that by-and-large, people tend to migrate toward the ends of any given spectrum. That we see ourselves (and others) as fixed and finite points when, in fact, we all fall somewhere in between. An amalgamation of myriad elements. Fluid with respect to gender, color, sexuality, etc. That while we speak of tolerance, acceptance, even embracing and celebrating our differences; our actions suggest we cling to convention and so-called norms that serve to separate us from one another. Debra Ann stated, "I am opening things up". We suggested that with BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY, she is shaking the proverbial tree and trying to wake people up. She replied - "the tree has been shook!"

Speaking with Debra Ann Byrd was a delightful experience that could have gone on for hours. She did not give too much away, but one thing is certain: this is going to be a multifaceted, multidimensional, and truly unique production. BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY promises to be rich and layered. Perhaps more so than that of any onion ever sliced or diced.

BECOMING OTHELLO: A BLACK GIRL'S JOURNEY runs July 16 - 25 at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Visit: www.shakespeare.org for tickets and information before this unique theatrical experience moves to NYC's Lincoln Center, and then to Europe. A video teaser can be viewed at: https://vimeo.com/554806765



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