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Shakespeare & Beyond

BECOMING OTHELLO! A gender-flipped journey onstage and in the archive


Becoming OthelloBecoming Othello
Debra Ann Byrd as Othello

Becoming Othello started out as the dream of a wide-eyed college senior, who while seeing actor Charles Dutton perform Othello’s ‘It is the Cause’ speech, pledged to herself that she too, would one day say those powerful words on a stage in a room full of people.

Roll on 13 years, and that dream became reality when I met Lisa Wolpe, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare. Lisa and I were in New York planning a staged reading for my newest project, the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, when we went to see our mentor Tina Packer perform Women of Will.

As I watched Tina playing Desdemona in that same final scene of Shakespeare’s Othello, I remembered my college dream. After the show I asked Lisa, “Do you have any Iago in you?”, to which she replied, “Yes! I do.” “Do you have any Othello in you?” I hesitated, but blurted out, “Yes!” We locked eyes and said, then that’s what we’ll do, an all-female OTHELLO.

It was during rehearsals for that 2013 production that I came up with the idea to write about some of the discoveries I made on my acting journey to becoming Shakespeare’s noble, flawed general Othello. It was an exciting, challenging, frightening, and earth-moving time. Exciting because I got to realize a dream. Challenging because, as an actor, I had never taken on a role of that size. Frightening because I needed to become a man to play the role. And then show up on the stage, in front of all my friends, family, and peers. Being a leader in my Harlem community was challenging enough. I kept thinking, “Wow, can I do this?” Once I decided that I could do it, then gender issues started to arise. I thought, “What am I going to look like? What are folks going to think of me?” My actor’s mind was really beginning to believe that I was this man, this general, when nature hit my woman’s body, knocking me out of my created reality, spinning my mind out of control and landing me somewhere in an altered state of a new world.

I carried on with and completed the show. Yet, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I found myself in a strange place trying to get back home. Then after some time and contemplation of gender, I realized that I was home. Now I really knew I had to write about becoming Othello. Not just for me, but for all those who ever dreamed a dream and those who wrestled with themselves about the binary idea of gender.

With all of this in mind, I prayed for someone who could help me write this memoir and solo-show. I was inspired that that person was my friend the Rev. Paul Edmondson, a scholar and a wonderful man. He and fellow Shakespeare scholar Paul Prescott helped me in the form of arranging for me to be Writer-in-Residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK and a speaking engagement at The University of Warwick. When that month-long residency was nearing its end, Paul Prescott and Professor Katie Brokaw suggested that I apply for a fellowship at the Folger Institute, insisting that that would be a great thing for me. Of course, I was scared, but I agreed to apply, as I knew I needed to learn about Shakespeare and Othello from an American perspective.

Filming outside the FolgerFilming outside the FolgerMy application to the Folger Institute was successful, and I was named Artist-in-Residence Fellow for 2018-2019. My journey to becoming Othello was turning into a journey about writing a book and new solo show about becoming Othello. All of this prompted me to want to document this new journey on film. So I began to do just that. Now, I had to plan what I wanted to document and why. I felt that I was somehow making history and I wanted to leave a legacy for my family.

At the Folger

My Folger experience was everything I wished it to be and more. Again, I was frightened, a girl in a new world, Washington DC, and an artist in a world of books and surrounded by a bunch of people who were probably all smarter than me. At first it was very intimidating, but as I got to know the supportive librarians it felt more and more like fun and home and a safe space to learn and grow. And let’s not forget afternoon tea with Folger staff and the other fellows… lovely, just lovely!

I had a ball wrestling with myself to figure out what would be my main focus of research. After exploring all the Othello books, tapes, and photos, I set my mind to discovering if there were any women who played Othello in America. No, better than that, who was the first woman to play Othello in America. With the help of one of my new fellow friends I found many women who played male roles in Shakespeare. I could barely contain myself. I wanted to jump up and shout, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” But I couldn’t because I was sitting in the middle of a library filled with scholars doing research. My actor self was exploding on the inside, but my newfound scholarly self adjusted my glasses and smiled thinking, “Damn, I am indeed a scholar now, and I have a chapter for my book.”

I went on to find the first female Othello, who lived in the 1800s. She was called an impersonatrix. Was I too an impersonatrix? Was I supposed to feel offended? I was not sure, so I just kept on researching. I found out all I could about her, her life, her family, her career, her accomplishments, but I had a difficult time finding an image of her or her first name. I found out a lot of information about her from the library’s books, theatre playbills, and old-fashioned card catalogues. I wanted to know how we were similar, how we were different. Did time and place and circumstance cause us to play Othello the same or different?

Unable to find my Lady Othello’s first name in the archive, I turned to ancestry records, since that is how I have found over 100 members of my own family. So I made her an ancestry chart using her husband and children’s names, and that’s how I discovered not only her first name, but also the name of her great-grand-niece. I mustered up the courage to send her a private message, hoping that she might have a photo of her great-grand-aunt. Unfortunately, the answer was no, but I was beyond ecstatic to be able to send her an etching of her beloved family member. Of course, I cried.

The Folger research helped me to find her place of birth, her career path, and her place of death, but some pieces were missing. Thankfully, I found them next door in the periodical section of the Library of Congress. Yes, yes, yes! I was able to complete my research just two days before it was time to leave. Success!

What’s next

Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the University of Warwick, Columbia University, AJ Leon at Misfit Inc., Voza Rivers at New Heritage Theatre Group, Mary Way at Southwest Shakespeare, my family, friends, and all my project supporters, I am on the journey to realizing all my dreams for this three-pronged, international adventure.

The BECOMING OTHELLO project includes a solo-show, BECOMING OTHELLO: A Black Girl’s Journey, written and performed by me and directed by the celebrated actor and director Tina Packer, founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company; a documentary film (we’re still playing with the title) that is almost ready for post-production; and lastly the memoir, which will include snatches from my life, as a young woman growing up in Spanish Harlem, and details of my gender-flipped journey to becoming Othello (from both the actor’s and producer’s perspective).

The memoir (no publisher yet, but hopeful) will also include a chapter on my career as a classical artist in America, a chapter comparing and highlighting Debra Ann as Othello and my found Lady Othello, a list of all the women I discovered who have played Othello; complete with the wonderful found images from my research and photos from my personal library. It will touch on Shakespeare and race, Shakespeare and gender, and what it means to be a classically trained actor of color in America.

When I was in Washington, DC, during my Folger fellowship, I was happy that I got to go to the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, as he is one of my soul mentors. He famously said, “I have a dream.”

I too have a dream, a dream that one day Shakespearean actors, of all races and nationalities, cultures and genders will be free to play in the sandbox that is our American stages without getting sand thrown in our eyes and ruining the ability to build the castles of our dreams.

All photos courtesy of the author.


[…] ⇒ Related: Read Debra Ann Byrd’s reflections on playing Othello. […]

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