When it comes to Black theater, Debra Ann Byrd is a phenomenon! She is not only a powerful, gifted actress, but also a playwright, the producing artistic director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, formerly Take Wing and Soar Productions, and an extraordinary classically trained actress. Byrd is the person who doesn’t let anything stop her from taking on roles that challenge her on many levels, such as being Othello. Now, this fantastic talent has created a one-woman autobiographical choreopoem that chronicles her life called, “Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey.” Utilizing rhyme, meter, moving multimedia images, lyrical language and soulful songs, the production looks at her life from growing up in Spanish Harlem, to being in foster care, being a pregnant teen and single mother, and tackling Othello. She will perform the show on Monday, Dec. 14, and while the production presented as part of Elm Shakespeare Company’s online event series is free, registration is required and can be accomplished by visitng nationalartsclub.org or registering for the event at Eventbrite.com here.
I recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Debra Ann Byrd about this very important production. Our Q&A follows.
AmNews: You are the founder of Take Wing and Soar Productions and the producing artistic director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and now you have a one-woman autobiographical show that you will be performing on Monday, Dec. 14, that chronicles your journey in life and in the business—how do you manage to do it all?
Debra Ann Byrd: I guess I manage to do it all because I love it all. I love working diligently to master the art of Arts and Business Leadership. A mentor once told me that it is all the same thing. I asked, what is all the same thing? And she replied, ‘This theater thing that we do. No matter what job we do in theater, it is all the same thing.’ I didn’t really get it at first. Now I believe I know what she meant. No matter what position we hold in the theater, at the end of the day, we are all just working to tell stories to a live audience. I love writing stories. And most of all I love sharing myself with audiences after I take the time to create different characters for a play. I manage to do it all because I love being in love, and I am smitten with the theater and writing and acting.
AmNews: What does Harlem Shakespeare Festival do?
DAB: Take Wing And Soar Productions has officially morphed into the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, a summer/fall, three month festival meant to serve all communities across East, Central and West Harlem. Like Take Wing And Soar Productions, its mission is to foster diversity and inclusion in classical theater while providing center stage opportunities for women, youth and especially classically trained actors of color. We still produce our semi-annual Take Wing And Soar Spirit of Excellence Awards Gala event in the spring, and we have continued the Classical Lab Reading Series. The Harlem Shakespeare Festival, created in a partnership with Voza Rivers/New Heritage Theatre Group, is now a subsidiary [a daughter company] of New Heritage Theatre Group.
AmNews: Debra Ann, you are known for not only doing Shakespearean classics, but playing the male roles, as you did with Othello. What motivates you to do Shakespearean work and to tackle these non-traditional parts?
DAB: I had been acting seven or eight years when I was actively looking to challenge myself as an actor. It was during that time, around about 1996, that I happened upon Shakespeare. George Wolfe, the artistic director at the Public Theater, had sent a troupe of Black actors to the Harlem Victoria 5 Theatre as part of the Public Theater’s mission to bring Shakespeare to the boroughs. I was there and it is there where I found my challenge, ‘Shakespeare’! I then went to college to learn Shakespeare. While there my professor, Elizabeth Swain, told the class that there was a trend coming where women would begin to take on the male roles in Shakespeare plays. She advised us to find a character that we wanted to play and to begin to work on a monologue or two that would prepare us for what was to come. I think I chose Hotspur from ‘Henry the IV’ or maybe it was Aaron the Moor. Soon after I saw the brilliant actor Charles Dutton, at a John Barton ‘Playing Shakespeare’ workshop, where he was performing a monologue from Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’ His performance was so magical and so mesmerizing that I told myself (in that moment) that I wanted to play that role exactly the way I saw him play it. He was extraordinary and I thought to myself, if I can challenge myself to be such a fine actor, then I would have achieved excellence in my artistry. So, I set out to make that come true. It took me 13 years to challenge myself in that way and to finally realize that dream.
AmNews: Your one-woman show, ‘Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey’—what inspired you to create it, how long did it take you to put pen to paper, and what do you want audiences to get out of experiencing this 90-minute production?
DAB: I was inspired to create my one-woman play, ‘Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey,’ because when I had taken on the title role of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice,’ many things happened to me when I was creating the character of Othello. My actor’s journey was not only extraordinary but spilled out into my daily life. When I am creating a character, particularly one that is very unlike my normal self, I tend to spend countless hours preparing for that role, so that by the time I hit the stage, you will only see the character with little or no traces of the Debra Ann that folks know and love. Because I had experienced so many extraordinary things when I was becoming Othello, I decided that I needed to write about these extraordinary events. Many of the things that happened to me during rehearsal were mentally, physically and emotionally challenging to say the least. It is those challenges which caused me to have to look at my personal life. And in doing that, my life or shall I say, my world, changed. These things were just too significant to just go on with life as usual. The stories were begging to be told. And since I always wanted to write a memoir and perform a solo show, I thought that I would write a solo show and perform it, as well as write my memoir. I gave myself a three-year timeline to create these projects. What that meant is I had three years to research and write the play and the memoir. Somehow during the first year I thought to myself that this seems like a history making project (and an international one) and so I thought that it should be documented as well. So, then the idea of creating a documentary film was born. The next thing I knew I had a three-arm project called ‘Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey.’ Fall 2020 I have completed the play script and am in talks with a publisher about the possibilities of publishing the memoir. And lastly the documentary feature film has completed filming and is currently in post-production. What I want audiences who watch ‘Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey’ to take away is the idea that it is absolutely possible to have victory over hopelessness and helplessness and that we can live in a world where we can find and experience love and peace.
AmNews: Debra Ann, I have known you for many years and have loved your stage work and the shows you have done at Take Wing And Soar. But I never had any idea the personal struggles you had faced being in the foster care system, teenage motherhood and being a single parent—what helped you to get through all of these hurdles in life and why do you want to tell your story now?
DAB: Thank you, Linda. I appreciate your kind words about my craft and career. I have indeed encountered many challenges and struggles in my life. However, I have been, for as long as I can remember, a Christian girl. And I must say that my spiritual journey has helped me to navigate and deal with any and all kinds of things that have come my way; be it the good things or the bad things. It was indeed those personal struggles, joys and triumphs that have helped me to create the kind of characters that I have created for the stage…I have endeavored to tell my story so that hopefully folks can see themselves reflected back and learn from my stories and perhaps, together, we can work to make the world a better place for us all.