Shakespeare Alive

3. Becoming Othello, with Debra Ann Byrd

December 01, 2020 Debra Ann Byrd Episode 3
Shakespeare Alive
3. Becoming Othello, with Debra Ann Byrd
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Shakespeare Alive
3. Becoming Othello, with Debra Ann Byrd
Dec 01, 2020 Episode 3
Debra Ann Byrd

Paul chats to Debra Ann Byrd, the entrepreneurial artistic director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, about why she founded her company, what it does, and about her important and inspiring memoir; Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey.

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Show Notes Transcript

Paul chats to Debra Ann Byrd, the entrepreneurial artistic director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, about why she founded her company, what it does, and about her important and inspiring memoir; Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey.

Support the show (https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/podcast-support)

Paul Edmondson
Hello everybody. And welcome to Shakespeare Alive! a podcast of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. My name's Paul Edmondson. Shakespeare Alive! hosts conversations with people who work with Shakespeare throughout the world.

Debra Ann Byrd is the entrepreneurial founder and producing artistic director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, dedicated to casting actors of color in Shakespearian roles and the wider classical repertoire. She herself first played Othello in 2013, and has since devised an award-winning one-woman show: 'Becoming Othello: A Black Girl's Journey', written as a result of her having been a writer-in-residence with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in partnership with the University of Warwick and Misfit. She's also a community scholar at Columbia university, New York. Debra Ann: welcome. It's wonderful that you can do this. Thank you. 

Debra Ann Byrd
Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Paul
So, Debra Ann, how did you first encounter Shakespeare?

Debra Ann
I first encountered Shakespeare in Harlem.  I was invited to see a performance of Shakespeare at the Harlem Victoria Five Theatre, which is a few doors down from the Apollo Theatre.  And the wonderful gentleman I was working for said that I should maybe come and see this show. And he said it was Shakespeare. And I said, well, Okay. And so of course I went and there was a troupe of black actors there performing scenes and monologues from , from Shakespeare's plays. And I thought that they were very intriguing and I thought that they were, it looked like it was a great big challenge. And I was really up for a challenge after having spent the last seven, eight years doing theatre in general, but mostly gospel theater and black theatre shows. And so I said, I like that, you know, and I just, I just took that, stuck it in my bonnet and just held it there to remember it until other things happened.

Paul
How old were you when this was all happening, if you don't mind me asking? 

Debra Ann
I think I was about 26-ish maybe. 

Paul
And have you [00:02:00] seen much Shakespeare performance before then? 

Debra Ann
I had seen no Shakespeare performance before that. No.

Paul
I wonder what it was about that first time that made you really think, gosh, this is for me.

Debra Ann
Well, I think one, one part of it was, I was challenged by one of my mentors that he said the next time I see you on the stage with a lot of actors. No. He said with a bunch of actors and you're the best thing on the stage, I'm a kick your butt. Because he said, what you need to do is challenge yourself. I need to see you performing on the stage with actors who are going to give you a challenge.

And I don't know what he's talking about, but then I kind of did because he's, you know, he's he said you were up there, you were just coasting. And so. That, that idea of needing a challenge was already in my body. So that text and the way they were speaking, it sounded like that was a challenge. So that was one, but the other thing was something about the rhythms and, um, How they spoke it, it was like very, very familiar to me.

And, and what I mean by familiar is I grew up in the church where the Bible was the King James Bible. And so a lot of what they were saying, although sometimes I didn't know what they were saying, I understood the rhythms of it, and I understood some of what they were saying because it used the language of the King James Bible. And that was juicy to me. 

Paul
And Shakespeare has become an important part of your life. And how, how is he important to what you do with your work? 

Debra Ann
I think Shakespeare is like all over it. Somehow. Somehow Shakespeare has wormed his little way into my world, into my planet, into my existence, into my universe, into my heart. He'll be trying to sneak up in my mind and soul, too.  I decided to just go to college and in my going to college, of course I learned everything. I have wonderful liberal arts, wonderful acting one, two and three, but when it came to acting four, which was the Shakespeare, it was a scary and extraordinary time. And once I realized that I might be able to be okay, then I said, alright, and then I went to those classes and my professor, Elizabeth Swain was, well, she was from the UK. She was passionate and extremely helpful and a wonderful teacher. And she just kept pouring herself into me. If you know what that means. And the more she shaped me and moulded me as a Shakespearian, the more and more I loved it, I just loved it and loved it in a special way until it was like almost snatched for me, until I was told that I wouldn't really have a real career in it. So I might as well try something else, you know, like August Wilson.

Paul
And somewhere among all of that training and taking it into your bones, into your body there grew surely the idea of Harlem Shakespeare Festival, a Harlem Shakespeare Company for  actors of colour. Tell us about that. What's its mission?

Debra Ann
Well, I started the company off with a name, like Take Wing and Soar productions and to take wing and saw means to, to soar, uh, you know, like the eagles to soar above the heights. This is what I wanted the worlds of those actors to be like. I wanted them to have the feeling that they were soaring, that they were soaring on wings of an eagle like they'd never soared before because they hadn't been given the opportunities to soar like that. And you only get those opportunities to soar like that, in my mind you only get them, if you get a chance to really practise your craft, not just like one little monologue, or you have two or three lines and between all the leads' lines, but actually getting an opportunity to play the leads. And so because these act.. artists of color, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, were not really getting those opportunities to have those kinds of challenges we wanted to give those artists the opportunities to have those kinds of challenges. What is it like to play Richard III? What is it like to play Hamlet and King Henry IV, Shylock? What is that like? Um, and so artists were very, very excited about, about the opportunities and not, you know, not just Shakespeare, but also like Medea and, and Oscar Wilde's plays and things like that. And so we founded the company to give centre-stage opportunities to classically trained actors of colour, but we have a special mission to women, youth. And, and classically trained actors of colour, especially them.

Paul
So we're going back more than a decade in thinking about where it started from aren't we.

Debra Ann
Yes. We started in - 2003 was our first season. 

Paul
And did it, did it feel in those days as it were extremely pioneering? Was anybody else doing what you were setting out to do? 

Debra Ann
I found that there was one company in San Francisco called the African American Shakespeare Company. And it didn't seem that they were doing a lot of Shakespeare, um, like more like community work at that time, but they were the only company, specifically a company run by people of colour.

Paul
Ten years after your company started, you yourself took on the role of Othello and it was an all-female Othello. I wonder if you could say a little bit about how that came about.

Debra Ann
I had been since college, um, my senior year of college, the same wonderful Elizabeth Swain said, ladies, I have something to share with you. And I think that you should know that there is a trend where women, uh, are beginning again to play. The male roles in Shakespeare. Somewhere along the line I saw Charles Dutton performing Othello at a John Barton, uh, 'Playing Shakespeare' event that was happening in New York. That's where I saw, um, Charles Dutton, uh, performing Othello. So in my heart and my mind and my body, I knew I just wanted to, I just had to, I just must speak those words.

He was so amazing that I knew that I absolutely had to play that role. I knew that if I could play it any way like he could play it, then I knew that I would have accomplished something really special because when I was watching him, and we were watching all the exercises, he was the very last person to get on the stage and, and have John Barton's coaching.

And when he was done, John Barton just stared at him because he needed little or no coaching. It was really, really great. So anyway, so... She also took us to see, um, there was a Queens company, something called the Queens Company here in New York, and it was a troop of women actors, who - they acted with these really fancy costumes and no shoes.

And they would do, they would do Shakespeare, but they would also do, um, uh, Tis Pity She's a Whore, and stuff like that. And it was really great. And so I said, I really liked that and I want to, I want to do it and I want to try it. And what, what if I do it all female? And then of course I met Lisa Wolpe, who... the founder of the Los Angeles Women's Theatre.

And she did all female. And so when she heard that I was going to start the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, she asked me could she help, and I said, 'Well, I think you can'. And she said, 'Well, what will you need?' I said, 'Well, I'm not sure, but according to my budget, I think we could do a reading.' And she said, 'I'd be happy to do a reading with you.'

And then we tried to figure out what that would look like. And she came to New York and we saw Tina Packer's show when Tina packer was performing an Othello. And then I remembered, 'Oh, Deborah Ann, didn't you remember you wanted to be Othello?' And see that had been many years ago that I wanted to be Othello, that I saw Charles Dutton.

But this time it looks like I was actually going to get a chance because I had a brilliant woman who had been for the last 20 years doing all female Shakespeare. And we, we, we were thinking that we were doing all female because one: women would need those opportunities, just like, um, artists of colour who was not really getting those lead roles. Women sometimes they get lead roles, but the lead roles in Shakespeare's plays for the women are not as juicy or chall -  sometimes they are as challenging - I'm not going to say challenging - other than Cleopatra - they don't require as much of an actor. Besides we thought: why not flip the genders, like back in the day, when Shakespeare was done by all men. What would happen if it's done by all women?

How would they, that changes the story? How will that inform the story? Is it the same story? All of those things come into question when you're doing all female. Are you doing all female and the women are female and playing female? Or are you doing all female and the women are men and like that  -

Paul
Pretending to be men?  Or you, or you turn the character into a female character. Or do you play, do you play the character as a woman, but pretending to be male, but not dressed as a man as it were? I’ve seen that as well. That's another option, isn't it? That you just, as it were just perform the character with everything that you can bring to it. And gender is sort of less important somehow. 

Debra Ann
Right? All of those three ways, um, I have seen it.

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Anjna Chouhan: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is the charity that promotes the life work and times of William Shakespeare in his hometown of Stratford upon Avon. We look after the five houses associated with Shakespeare and his family, we make freely available an internationally important library, archive and museum collection. We lead new research and we run an award-winning education program. In light of this podcast, please consider making us a donation. You can do this by visiting shakespeare.org.uk/donate. Your support and goodwill really matter to us. And we hope you'll recommend our podcast to your friends.

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Debra Ann
Can you, as an actress, transform yourself so much so that when an audience sees you, they could really be mistaken you for a man?

So that kind of challenge is what some actors want. And others are just happy with just challenge of just having to learn a thousand more lines or a thousand more words. 

Paul
No the challenge you took up was the former, because you did drop your voice did, and you did develop masculine gesture. 

Debra Ann
Absolutely.

Paul
And you, you, you started to live the part in, in - off the stage, didn't you, a little bit?

Debra Ann
A lot a bit. And sometimes I couldn't go all the way there because of my, um, I don't want to say status, but let me use that word, 'cause it's the best word I know right now, because of my status in the community as a leader. I knew, I couldn't just automatically just like, take my hair and make it a little short Afro and, and, you know, just like, kind of get my swagger and just, you know, talk and I didn't move in a certain way. You'd be like, yo, what's up? Yeah. Cause everything changes once you really take on a persona, for me at least. I really shift into that persona. So I kind of, I changed as much as I could. And what it made me do is take on these kinds of thoughts and feelings and that magic, 'if'. I think that magic ' if' might've gotten me in trouble, because I magically transported myself, my mind, my heart, and even my body, just some degree into this is a male.

But I think the  most challenging part of that probably was when I hit a wall and I didn't, I didn't understand what that wall was or why it was there or why I was being treated the way I was being treated or why people were shying away or running away or giggling or all of these things. I think I was hurt because I had never, in my life been told that I couldn't be something. And, and now I realize that because as a child, I was, I was able to play football with the boys. And able to jump Double Dutch with the girls, you know, braid the hair with the girls and be silly and playing hopscotch and all of those jump ropes. But with the boys, we would play tag football and climb the fences and race each other.  I would do all of that. And no one told me that I couldn't be, I couldn't be a boy and a girl, and I wasn't trying to be a boy or a girl. I was just trying to be. So now here I am at  bump-bump years old, and I am, and I am working my heart out to become this character who was my dream to become. And all of a sudden, the world said 'No!'.

Paul
Who said, 'No'? 

Debra Ann
The world.

Paul
What does that mean?

Debra Ann
Well, the people around me started to like, tease me or mock me or say stuff to me, like 'You just want to be a man'. No, I don't want to be a man. I'm going to challenge my damn self to be able to speak those lines like Charles Dutton. He was brilliant, and my director says that this is a man story. So I was prepared to play Othello as a woman. Although playing Othello as a woman would have meant that I would be a lesbian and I had some concerns about that too. But what if my community thinks I'm a lesbian and trying to play Otello as a woman? And so I was thinking, and I said, well, I just want to play Othello, so it doesn't matter if they, what they think, because my goal was to play Othello.  But when I decided that I was going to play Othello like a man, I went all in as an actor. It was crazy and interesting. And it made me say, I must write about these experiences. 

Paul
And this was the beginnings of Becoming Othello: A Black Girl's Journey, your one-woman show memoir which puts over this formation, this voyage, this journey from your younger self to at least 2013 and beyond when you realized Othello,  you realized the Othello within you and the Othello of our own time and culture. 

Debra Ann
Yeah, all of that came forward Othello. A lot of things came forward from Othello and a lot of things about me. I mean, just some of the parallels I think, um, just how I was able to... Well I knew I was going to play him with as much dignity and respect as I possibly could, because some of those photos I've found, he looked at just absolutely crazy. And I said, when I read the text and when I started to embody the texts. I realize that this is a man in pain. There's no way that this man can be one minute speaking regular, and then the next minute he thinks there'd be 'a huge eclipse of sun and moon / And that th'affrighted globe should yawn at alteration.' 

And he starts speaking all these things that are like very, very uncommon and very flowery. Where did this warrior man who killed folks and kept order and drew, drew respect from everyone around him: how come all of a sudden, you know, when he says, 'why should I marry?' That's okay. That's very common stuff. When he started saying, you know, when he started like 'the Pontiac in the Hellespont' and when he starts going all over there, I'm like, hmm, this man, he starts speaking in three, four, five syllable words, all of a sudden. And normally when we're mad and angry, we speak in like cuss words, which are like one or two syllables, but he doesn't do that. He starts to go all the way into places that, you know, he's having a serious emotional journey there. And so I really wanted to allow him to have that serious emotional journey. 

And what did those things really mean? And why was I saying them? What was going on for me that made me have to switch? Like when, when, um, musical theater people break out into a song it's like that, because one minute you're speaking and the next minute you're like 'Somewhere', you know? So what made you shift to that regular speech was no longer useful, that you actually needed to shift? 

Paul
I wonder for you whether there was something spiritual there, thinking about what you said about the King James I Bible and the cadences of Shakespeare. I wonder if there's something almost like an Old Testament, prophet voice in Othello.

Debra Ann
Absolutely. There's some of that. And there's some, uh, because what I allowed myself to begin to imagine, is that just as, um, just as Othello begins to tell us about his mother and that she had, um, a Sibyl who 'had numbered in the world / The sun to course to two hundred compasses'  when he starts to talk about that stuff, it, it starts to make me think that perhaps Othello's mom has some mystical side. And so if she has some mystical side and he was with his mom and he remembers his mom, then perhaps he may even remember some of that time in Africa and the things he saw before he, you know, before he was stolen. Right. 

So I when, when I, when, when, when people say, Oh, it's an honour killing because he's, you know, whatever, I start to think, well, honour killings and other places might go like this. So maybe in Africa, if, if I'm preparing to have to kill Desdemona - and I don't know it was making it up - I said, maybe that speech where he says, 'look here, Iago, now do I see tis true'. Right? And then he starts 'all my fond love thus do I blow to heaven, 'tis gone. Arise, black vengeance -' when I get to that, I start doing an incantation and a spell. And I started stirring my own self up in my bosom. I can feel it and see it swelling in the crowd. And I started, and as I do that, it builds in me like Prince preacher rhythms. And by the time I'm in the middle of it, or the end of it, you would have sworn you just went to church or you were swore you went to an incantation service because I go all the way over there.

Paul
The heart, and the gesture towards pressing your heart and your breast and your chest is important to you as Othello, isn't it?

Debra Ann
It is, a lot of the time. I realized after my one, two, three, after my second time playing him, going into the third time playing him, I realized that I didn't have to totally lose all my feminine. That I could keep it because all of a sudden up from the page jumped these words that said 'my soul have her content. So absolute.' And I said, wait a minute: his soul is a, her? Well, what if his soul is a 'her'? Why don't I allow my soul to be a 'her' while my body is a 'him'? And let me see what happens. And when I did that, when I was like, yeah, what's up baby, you're fine, and all that, you know, but then when he's hurt and he's a soldier-man who's hurt and he doesn't know what to do with that. He doesn't know what to do with that love thing. He knows what to do with it, when you got a soldier, and you got to break that neck, you know what to do with that. 

But what do you have to do when you have to caress the neck? How is that now more of a challenge? How is that now make me more crazy? And we know that people in love just do the craziest stuff. Especially if they start to get jealous, that's a big, big damn problem. And if you don't know how to control that, if you don't know how to make the, what I call, make the right choices, if you would've made different choices, then he could have been okay. And Desdemona could have been okay, but Desdemona didn't help herself when she started all that lying about that damn handkerchief.

Paul
You know, I'm thrilled that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has played its small part in helping you bring to birth the memoir, which became the one-woman show based on all of this Becoming Othello: A Black Girl's Journey, which you started researching during your time as writer-in-residence here in Stratford-upon Avon. You were living at that time, just across the road from the Birthplace itself. I thought to finish off with, I just ask you two questions that we ask all of the guests. If you were to choose one of the five Shakespeare houses to live in, as it were in a fantasy life, which one would you choose and why would you choose it?

Debra Ann
Any one. Any one. Okay. I like the farm, but I don't like the smelling of the animals, so that's not going to be it. Um, I'm just going to just say hands-down, I'd like to live at the actual Birthplace. Why? Because. Couple of reasons. One is because you will get to look out the window and see all of those wonderful people who are extremely happy and extremely excited just to be in front of the joint. I mean just -  they, they, they, they they're, they're, they're loud and noisy and some are reverend and some are - just to see the reactions of the people who come up in front of it, whether they're on their own and they have a selfie-stick or they have no selfie-stick. They're trying to get that angle to get that question. That is just beautiful. So that thing does my heart warm and I like my heart warm.

The other thing is I love things old. So when I look up and I see those beams, or I see that big, giant fireplace, that would probably be where you cooked the pig. When I see those kinds of things, um, they make me like very excited. So I love that kind of stuff. I love... um, I love... and the garden! If I had a big, giant garden like that in the back of my house, I would say wow - I mean, I, I wouldn't want to be around the bugs too much, but I like the flowers. I like the paths. I like that big giant jars that got the W on it, the WS, all of that is really beautiful. I've taken some lovely, lovely photos out there. It's just, there's something about that... the house and the garden is two totally different things. One is like wood and mud. And the other is like air and life and white and blue. And, and even the Gates are really pretty with the little curly things and the hedges in the front, all trimmed. I think that's the one for me. 

Paul
Next time I walk past, which I do every day, I'll look up and expect to see you from a window to speak some Shakespeare lines down to me, Debra Ann.

Debra Ann
Absolutely. 

Paul
And I remember you loving, immersing yourself in our archive and library researching previous Othellos here in Stratford and elsewhere. I wonder if you were to take something from our library, archive, or museum collection, which you could keep forever, what would you choose and why? 

Debra Ann
Wow. There were a lot of things, but I think I spent most of my time with photographs. So I think I would have to take the photographs. I won't take them all, but I will take, I will absolutely take  any playbill that you have of Ira Aldridge, and that says Othello with, I gotta have an extra though, I'd like to have those pictures that when I look at my pictures of Othello and I look at pictures from the 1800's, and we have the same expression and, or the same pose: those pictures, because those pictures helped me to understand that I'm kind of in the groove of it. That means something about that character that Shakespeare wrote resonates through time through actors, through an artist's mind and heart and soul in the creation of it. So that somehow it's exactly the same. Even down to my little Afro, I found a few of those pictures and I said, that's me back in 18-so-and-so, and 1947, and all of these years, I said, wow, I did it. It just gives me a little bit of validation. 

Paul
Debra Ann Byrd: thank you for sharing some of that groove with us just now. I hope it's a groove that continues, that continues to be pioneering, that draws more and more people into it, and we wish you ever so well with your current projects and your future ones. I think, I think Cleopatra is coming up. Isn't she for you?

Debra Ann
She is, she is she's coming up next week. Next week, I get to play Cleopatra on Zoom. It'll be my, I think my eighth or ninth Zoom performance.

Paul
Well, you are you already 'a lass unparalleled', so thank you very much, indeed. 

Debra Ann
Thank you. Thank you, kindly. I really, really appreciate you. God bless you.

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Paul
So, what would you like to deposit in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: something real or imaginary? We'd love to hear from you via shakespeare.org.uk/future. And while you're there, please consider completing our short survey, so we can produce more of the content that you like.

Anjna
Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Shakespeare Alive with Paul. Next week, I will be speaking with the founder of theatre company Will & Co.,Victoria Baumgartner. We'll be talking about her play Will and hearing all about her groundbreaking project to bring Shakespeare to your own doorstep during the COVID 19 pandemic.