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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Debra Ann Byrd on Becoming Othello

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 201

Debra Ann Byrd has played Othello in three different productions: first, in a staged reading in 2013, then again in 2015 and 2019. Each time, she learned a little bit more about Othello, and about herself. In her one-woman show Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, Byrd recounts her experience discovering herself while playing Shakespeare’s tragic hero. The show reaches back to her childhood in Spanish Harlem, her mother’s tragic death, and her own struggles with depression. She also tells the story of how she was inspired to start the Harlem Shakespeare Festival after seeing how few opportunities there were for actors of color to work in classical theater. Byrd discusses her journey, and the play it inspired, with host Barbara Bogaev.

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Debra Ann Byrd is the founder of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and Producing Artistic Director of Southwest Shakespeare Company. She is a former Folger Artistic Research Fellow.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published January 17, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from John Buroker at HEARby sound in Seattle, and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: How does an actor become Othello? Well, if you’re Debra Ann Byrd, you start with a physical transformation.

[CLIP from Becoming Shakespeare: A Black Girl’s Journey.]

DEBRA ANN BYRD: Now I change my hair from long and flowing to a short, curly afro. I remember the days when I outdid the boys in gym class. I’d watch men and get a refresher on how they move, how they sit, how they speak, how they handle women, flirt, and how they behave. No perfume. No makeup. No earrings, except for Othello’s little gold hoop.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

Debra Ann Byrd is the founder of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and Producing Artistic Director of Southwest Shakespeare Company. But she got her start in theater as a classically trained actor. Now, she’s stepping out from her work behind the scenes and returning to the stage.

In her one-woman show Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, Debra Ann recounts her experience discovering herself while playing Shakespeare’s tragic hero. She has tackled the role of Othello in three different productions: first in a staged reading in 2013, then again in 2015 and 2019. Each time, she learned a little bit more about Othello and about herself.

As Debra Ann explains in the show, those discoveries led her to write about her experience as an actor of color through the lens of playing Othello. Her autobiographical show Becoming Othello was first developed as a writer-in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and an Artistic Research Fellow at the Folger.

The show reaches back to her childhood in Spanish Harlem, her alcoholic mother’s tragic death, and her own struggles with depression. She also tells the story of how she was inspired to start the Harlem Shakespeare Festival after seeing how few opportunities there were for actors of color to work in classical theater.

Becoming Othello is currently running at Seattle Shakespeare Company.

Here’s Debra Ann Byrd, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: If you could, I’d like you to take us back to the very beginnings of your whole Othello trip. Your very first dream of playing the role that you have done so much with. And you’ve… yeah, right, you’ve said it goes way back to when you were a senior in college, but maybe even further.

BYRD: Yes, absolutely it does. I was a senior in college, and I was in my final semester at Marymount. Professor Elizabeth Swain, she took the entire class to a special taping of John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare. And Barton was coaching celebrity after celebrity. And then onto the stage came Charles Dutton.

BOGAEV: Oh, I love him.

BYRD: Yes, he was on that television show called Roc. He’s done a lot of August Wilson plays as well. He’s an actor of the stage and the television and film.

He was on the stage and then he walked back and forth upstage and we were all just watching him closely. He began his monologue, and as he was speaking, “It is the cause. It is the cause, my soul.”

[CLIP from Becoming Shakespeare: A Black Girl’s Journey. Debra Ann Byrd is Othello.]

Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars.
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

BYRD: Oh my goodness. I was enraptured. I was like, “Oh my God, he is brilliant.” He was so brilliant that at the end, John Barton had no notes for him. He was, kind of, just stuck. He had notes for everyone else.

But after, I saw Charles Dutton and the way he spoke those words and his emotion, his feeling. The integrity that he brought to the role, the vulnerability, everything. It was just so brilliant that I said, “Oh my God, I want to play that role like that. I want to say those words like that. And if I can, then perhaps I can say, ‘Debra Ann, you’re a brilliant actor.’”

So, I set out to one day play Othello. And, then, it finally came.

BOGAEV: Wow. Okay. So you’re hellbent on Othello. Then you flash forward 13 years, and you and Lisa Volpe went to see Tina Packer in Women of Will. What happened?

BYRD: Lisa, she was visiting me in New York because we were thinking about what it is that we were going to do for the Harlem Shakespeare Festival because it was our first season. Lisa said that she would direct something for me.

So, we went downtown to see Tina Packer in Women of Will with Nigel Gore. And they started performing the scene, Othello, Act Five, Scene Two. And I said, “Oh my god, that’s the role I want to play. That’s the role I want to play. That’s the role I want to play!”

So, when the show was over, I said, “Hey, Lisa, you have any Iago in you?” And Lisa said, “Yeah.” “You have some Othello in you?” Like, “Uhm, I think so. I think so.” Right then and there we decide we were going to produce an all-female, multiracial staged reading of Othello, The Moor of Venice. It was beautiful.

We cast 15 other women. Then, after talking to Lisa for a while and trying to understand what my Othello was or what it might be, she said, “Am I a man or a woman Othello?” And she says, “Debra Ann, this is a man’s story.” I had to figure out, “Okay, so how am I going to play this man? How am I going to perform this man? How am I going to embody this man?”

Trying to figure out what I was going to do with this man was going to be really interesting to me. And, you know, taking workshops and classes and even rehearsals with Lisa. I, you know, she teaches us how to move, how to sit, how to walk.

BOGAEV: How do you sit and move?

BYRD: Well, you know, I move wider. You know, you’re larger.

BOGAEV: You take up space? You man-spread.

BYRD: You take up more space; man-spread, of course, with the legs. Drop the voice an octave or two. Begin to speak that way all day, every day, all the time.

BOGAEV: Did you do like a Method acting thing?

BYRD: All the time. Absolutely, I did. I went to the grocery store. I asked for my… “Can you please give me a pound of salami?” I dropped my voice and I spoke everybody, everybody, everything. My children, my dentist—doesn’t matter. I was speaking low.

BOGAEV: What kind of reactions did you get? Your dentist… ?

BYRD: Well, you know, at first, folks were saying, “What the hell is wrong with her?” But at the same time, what I didn’t want to do is hit the stage and my femininity came flying out. Because I was thinking, you know, Othello’s a leader, a general, a warrior, a man’s man. I didn’t want to, you know, a set piece falling down and I’m squeaking like a girl. “Ah!”

No. I needed to, you know… so no matter what happened around me, in no matter what situation, no matter who said what to me, if I practice speaking in this such a low tone than perhaps when I hit the stage, it wouldn’t change. And it didn’t.

BOGAEV: That’s so interesting. So, you’re internalizing in this Method acting way, taking up space as a man. Well, what about your look? Did you have a model?

BYRD: Oh my look. Oh yeah. I had a little model, of course. I had a little model because first I was like, “What the hell am I going to look like as a man?” Then, I thought about my son Joshua. You know, he had a cute curly afro and he had the sideburns and the neatly trimmed goatee. And I said, “Yes. That’s it. That’s my look.”

BOGAEV: I’m curious what you think gender-switched productions do for the audience? What do you notice in their response when you’re on stage?

I’ve talked about this with the director Phyllida Lloyd, who did the trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays set in a prison. She talked about how it takes the audience out of themselves. It’s like a distancing effect on one level, in a good way. You are just open to seeing the play in a different way. You’re jolted into seeing new things.

BYRD: Yes, that’s absolutely true. I mean, when I look at the gender swaps that happened in the UK or when they first started happening. The females would not necessarily turn to males, but they would play the male roles. But in America, the females would totally swap and put on pants and become men.

What I noticed with the audience is that it takes them just a moment. At first they’re like, “Oh, what is this?” And then they’re like… they totally forget that those are females there.

This is the response that I got from the audiences, is they would say, “Oh my goodness. I totally forgot.”  Then, sometimes when they hear certain lines that are supposed to be coming from a male, but are coming from a female body in a male suit, they said that they sound different. They heard the lines different. They heard the lines better.

Even now when I’m on stage doing Becoming Othello and I begin to shift and I start turning into Othello, the audience begins to perk up and sit up and really pay close attention to watch the transformation happen before their eyes.

Because all of a sudden, I come up out of my dress that I have on, and I talk about being a youth. I outdid the boys and I wrestle out of my dress. And the next thing you know, I’m there bare. I’m not naked, of course. I have on full blacks. But it’s really interesting how the audience begins to say, “Okay, what’s happening here?”

BOGAEV: Shapeshifting.

BYRD: Yeah, I begin shapeshifting on stage and it’s really interesting to feel the audience because I can feel them. And then they’re with me the whole time after that.

BOGAEV: It’s so funny because I was going to ask you, at what point did you think, “Oh, this whole story could be a one-woman show.” But as you tell the story of it, it seems inevitable that this would be. This would be your work of art.

BYRD: I mean, at first, I was thinking, “I’ve always wanted to write a memoir from the time I was a younger person.” But I kept thinking, “No one really wants to hear a memoir from a young person.” What the hell is that?

But I had had to live so much life. I was in foster care. I was teenage mother. I had left my mama’s house, I’d left grandma. It was… I’ve had a really interesting time by the time I was still a young person.

But then as I was getting older and I was thinking about all these experiences I was having while becoming Othello, I just kept saying, “I want to write about this.” I thought it was a memoir. And then I said, “Wait a minute, girl. You know, ever since you watched Whoopi and John Leguizamo, you keep saying you want to do a solo show.”

And then I said, “You know what? Maybe this is my solo show. Maybe I talk about my life journey to Becoming Othello. Maybe I talk about being a classically trained actor of color. Maybe I talk about my role of Othello and why I chose him and how I played him, and do a little bit of that.”

And then I said, “Well, then if that’s going to be the case, Byrd, then who’s going to help you with that?” I thought about it and prayed about it, and to my mind’s eye came Paul Edmondson. He is the head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

BOGAEV: So that’s how you got to be a writer-in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford, England.

BYRD: Absolutely.

BOGAEV: And that’s when you really got fired up, right? About the idea for Becoming Othello. Apparently, it had something to do with you getting your results from DNA testing.

BYRD: What was interesting is, first, I was thinking about calling Paul and—I didn’t call him. But then I was at a conference. So, I saw Paul, and I said, “Paul, I have this idea. I want to write Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey.” And I began to tell him about it a little bit. I told him that I really needed his help.

So, he went back to Stratford and he said, “I couldn’t wait. I talked to the powers-that-be and they said that they want you to come and be writer-in-residence. When can you come?” And I’m like, “Uh, now.”

When I got there, I had, prior to that, taken DNA tests from Ancestry. So, while I was there like two days, my results came. So I said, “Hey Paul, my results came,” and I said, “They are this, this, this, and that.”

We were scheduled to do about nine interviews, and those nine interviews were supposed to help me to begin to get material or ideas for what it is I was going to write about. In one of the interviews, we did a breakdown of what my DNA results were, and he said, “You know what? Why is that interesting to you?”

I began to break it down and explain to him that, you know, I’ve always felt like I was many things. I know that my dad’s from Puerto Rico and my mom’s family is from Georgia. My last name is Irish. So, I’m wondering, what am I? And at that time, it said something about 2% English. Then Paul and Paul—this Paul Edmondson and Paul Prescott—they said, “Welcome, dear.” I thought that was quite silly and quite funny, but then I decided that I would figure out a way to add it to the play.

BOGAEV: Well, I’m flashing now on the beginning of your play. In the first act, you run through this lightning-fast history of slavery and the many free Blacks living and working near the Globe Theater during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

BYRD: Absolutely, the Black Tudors.

BOGAEV: The Black Tudors, that he might easily have met and worked with and known. It literally grounds the whole intersection of your story and Othello and Shakespeare.

[CLIP from Becoming Shakespeare: A Black Girl’s Journey.]

BYRD: There was a silk weaver living in Suffolk, close to the Globe and the Rose Theaters. Silk weaving was a new trade. Philip Henslowe in his diary lists 274 silk items in the actor’s inventory at the Rose. Did the silk weaver Reasonable Blackman supply that? Tis true. There’s magic in the web of it.

Mary Fillis was one of three Blackamoors living in the Barker household in the parish of St. Olave. She became a seamstress. Did she make clothes for Shakespeare when he lived round the corner on Silver Street for those seven years?

Then there was John Anthony, a sailor. Catalina, a woman who lived independently in Albury. And a salvage diver called Jacques Francis.

BOGAEV: How’d you track down those residents?

BYRD: Well, we were just looking at some of the history to see what we found. So, I started talking about Black Tudors in the play. Then, as I knew that there need to be respect for ancestors, I said, “Well, you know what? Ancestors like you to say their names.” I began to look in the history to see if I could find names of people.

BOGAEV: To honor them. Yeah. And they live on.

BYRD: Yes, I wanted to honor them.

BOGAEV: So you have this lecture and then there’s some of your background. There’s this history. Then there’s a lot of Shakespeare. And you slip in and out of some great monologues. For instance, Othello’s account of winning over Desdemona’s father.

[CLIP from Becoming Shakespeare: A Black Girl’s Journey. Debra Ann Byrd is Othello.]

Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days
To th’ very moment that he bade me tell it,
Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances:
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hairbreadth ’scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,
And portance in my traveler’s history,
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle
Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven.

BOGAEV: How did you think about how to integrate the monologues into the play?

BYRD: Well, some of it came naturally as I was thinking. I knew that I needed to have some Shakespeare. I needed it not to be boring, so I needed to have some song. You know, it’s boring when you’re just plain talking. I knew I wanted to have some music and some song, and some poetry. It had to have a lot of Shakespeare. So, by the time I finished writing it, it had over 200 lines of Shakespeare.

I went naturally to all of those monologues and scenes that I had worked on at Marymount Manhattan College. I knew that the Shakespeare that I had learned had become such a part of my body. Because you know, like my mentors and the people who I really love, actors, I like to go all in. So, those words, they still live in my body.

As I’m writing these things just come out. Like, I started saying, “Oh god, I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired, with a hey, ho, the wind and the rain, and the rain it raineth every day. How am I supposed to be okay?”

So, it just was so interesting to me that, that just came naturally because I started thinking about tears. I was crying. I started thinking about tears and the rain. And all of a sudden, “Hey ho the wind and the rain” came out. And it flowed and it worked.

Now there were other parts that I hadn’t added that I didn’t really know about. That’s why I left that up to Tina Packer to help me with that because she’s the brilliant Shakespearean. So, when my mom dies, Tina said, “Well, maybe you can add Richard II, ‘Mount, mount, my soul. Thy seat is up on high, whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.’” And I said, “Wow. Okay.”

BOGAEV: It’s like weaving. It hits you.

BYRD: I was absolutely just weaving the Shakespeare in. Except when I intentionally did some Shakespeare, some Othello monologues, when I start becoming Othello. Because I knew there might be a lot of audience members who might not even know what the play is.

BOGAEV: Well, it’s a really emotional journey, and you start laying it out pretty much right near the beginning of your show, your story. You get into a… there’s a point where you get into a conversation with God about why he had to go and give you a daughter with cerebral palsy.

BYRD: Yes, yes. Martha, you know, she was a preemie, and she came out 28 weeks. Then next thing you know, she’s diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She was in the hospital before that. She was in the hospital for three months in the ICU.

And, by the time in my life—it was around the ‘96 or so—you know, Martha had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and I was just exhausted. And after four years of taking care of her and going back and forth to the hospital, I decided I needed to lay down. So, I did. I laid down.

By the time I got up, a friend called me and said, “Debra Ann, just because your daughter’s dying does not mean you have to die too.” So, I began to get up from there and I said, “God, you know, this is not right. This is not fair. My life is [expletive].”

I started to have, what I call, an argument with God about Martha and why was she even born? Why am I here on this planet? So I began to hear God talk back to me and said, “If Martha was never born, you’d be dead by now. Do you remember you were standing out the window about to jump out? What did you say?”

“I said, I can’t take it anymore, but if I jump, who’s going to take care of Martha?”

“And that time that you were standing on the rooftop, what did you say?”

“If I die, who’s going to take care of Martha?”

“And that’s only two times that Martha saved your life. Now do you really want to lay there and die? I didn’t send that frail little angel there to save you so you can give up now.”

And then I lose it. “Yes, God. But life is an unrelenting hardship and I’m tired, damnit. I am tired.”

That moment in the play happens at the beginning because it is the pivotal moment where you understand that I had laid down to die. And as I began to talk to God about what was going on in my life, that’s when I really thought about it. I really love the theater. And all of my gifts and my abilities and my talents and my tragedies and my good times, they all fit there in the theater.

And maybe I can try that Shakespeare thing. But I know I can’t just try it. I got to go to school. But hell, what school? I’m damn near 30 years old. And of course, as Isaiah’s fate would have it, a few days later I’m on the bus. And on the bus was an advertisement that reads “Marymount Manhattan College at the Center of Excellence.”

My deal with God was if I get up from here, he has to help me, and that I have to be excellent, not just good, but excellent. Otherwise, I could just lay there and watch the time roll by to the day of my demise.

BOGAEV: Were you already a Shakespeare fan or even a theater fan? Because you do say often in the play you thought about becoming a preacher.

BYRD: Yes.

BOGAEV: I mean, you just had, as you said before, before you were 21…

BYRD: A lot.

BOGAEV: Yeah. You lived many lives. A lot of trauma in Spanish Harlem growing up with your mom who drank.

BYRD: And grandma, and everybody in the same house. Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

BOGAEV: Yeah. So, when did the shift to becoming a theater kid happen?

BYRD: Well, I was at church, and I was of course studying to be a reverend. I was on the choir and they were doing their Black history event. Somehow they lost their Harriet Tubman and asked me to fill in. I was, “Um no, I’m sorry. I have my studies to do. I’m trying to figure that out.” Then they kept bugging me and I said, “Okay, let me just go ahead and do it.”

Next thing I know, I’m a little old lady from the south and I was pretty good. And I was like, “Wait a minute, this is interesting.” The next year, one of the preachers’ wives says, “Debra Ann, you’re pretty good at that. You should try to become a professional actor.”

“Nope, nope. I’m sorry. I got my studies to do. I’m studying to be a preacher.”

And then another friend, “Debra, there’s a workshop. It’s with evangelist Mamie Perfit.”

I didn’t really want to go into show business, but I thought that I could go to the workshop with Mamie Perfit because she was an evangelist. I felt that was safe. So, I went to this workshop and she cast me as a lead. Next thing I know, I’m in Black theater and gospel theater and doing these shows for seven, eight years.

And then a friend invites me to see a troop of Black actors performing Shakespeare at the Harlem Victoria Five Theater. George Wolfe and the Public Theater had sent down a troop of actors to Harlem. I was there and I was watching, and it was very interesting. This woman, she was just going on and on and I said, “Wait a minute. This is different from what I know. I’m intrigued and challenged and enchanted and very curious. That stage is alive. It’s Queen Elizabeth from Richard III, “My tongue should to thy ears not name my boys / Till that my nails were anchored in thine eyes…” And I was like, “Woah!” I was very excited.

One of my mentors said, “Debra, if I see you on stage in another play where you are the best thing, I’m going to kick your butt. You need to go somewhere and learn, get a challenge, and get something that’s going to challenge you. Something that’s going to help you grow and get with other actors.”

I was like, “What are you talking about?” And then, when I saw that, I said, “That’s it. That Shakespeare stuff is intriguing and challenging, and I don’t know if I can do it, but I’d surely like to try.”

So, when I was going through my time of depression and sadness, in the bed and fighting with God, I realized that I need to be in the theater and I needed to learn some Shakespeare. So, that’s why I went to college.

BOGAEV: And then, you went to study Shakespeare. Then, you say when you got to your senior class showcase, people told you not to do Shakespeare, the very reason that you were there. To do August Wilson, instead.

So tell me about that. Who told you that? How did you react? I mean, I have my own thoughts about what that message is that they’re sending, but I want to know what you thought the message was.

BYRD: Well, it was really challenging, to say the least. One, first there was a bona fide casting director, and she wanted to know who was in the main stage production. They were doing Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I had been cast as Lady Bracknell.

When she asked everyone to raise their hand of who was in that production because she wanted to see, she ignored me every time I raised my hand. I’m like, “Wait a minute. I’m in that play. You don’t hear me.”

And she said, “Well, Debra Ann, how old are you?” She was saying, “Well, do you—[are you] really trying to do, the classics?” And already I’m starting to feel some kind of way.

BOGAEV: You mean, like, you’re too old and you’re Black? Is that what—?

BYRD: I’m too old and I’m Black. Yes. And I was like, “What?” Okay, so now, she says the professor is going to help us with all scenes and monologues. The professor pulled me aside and said, “Debra Ann, you know, I don’t think you should do any classical work for your showcase, with your facility for language. You should try your hand at August Wilson. Are you going to do a song?”

BOGAEV: Oh my God.

BYRD: Oh, that broke my heart. All of that broke my heart. I just started, I went to my seat and I started crying. I just said, “I got to get out of here.” I ran out of that classroom, tears running down my face, not knowing what to do. I jumped on the elevator and started to head upstairs hoping that Professor Swain was in her office.

I went to that office, bust in there crying, “Professor Swain, I’m leaving the theater.” I just was… I just lost it. And she said, “Well, what are you going to do?”

“Well, I’m just going to be in communications or something. I’m going to…”

And she says, “Debra Ann, no matter what you choose, there are going to be problems in the world. You’re an actor and a damn good one. Dry your face, go back to class.”

I went back to my acting class and, of course, I did do an August Wilson monologue and no one called me from… no agent, no casting director. And then I was just pissed. Other students had come to me, people of color, “Debra Ann, why is it that we don’t get counseling? The plays? What’s going on?” And I started thinking about all of this and I said, “You know what, something needs to shift.”

There was a grant for a woman who had went back to college and was about to graduate. They asked, “What are you going to do with yourself and what are you going to do in your community?” I said, “Well, what I’m going to do in my community is I’m going to go back to my community. I’m going to get some women to join me as board members, and I’m going to start a professional theater company: Take Wing and Soar Productions. It is to be a theatrical, safe space where artists of color can hone their skills and build their confidence by building their resumes.”

We set out to change the face of American classical theater.

BOGAEV: Which eventually led you to the Harlem Shakespeare Festival.

BYRD: Which eventually—10 years later I founded the Harlem Shakespeare Festival. I think, I really, truly believe we’ve made a difference. Yeah.

BOGAEV: I mean, I could keep you here all, all day and night talking about all the hats you wear, but just as a last question, I do want to ask you the… just given your experience acting and producing and managing and running the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and now the Southwest Shakespeare. What do you think has changed for actors of color over the past decade or so?

BYRD: It’s better. That’s what I want to say. There has been a change. I think the biggest change has been in leadership. When I first became a member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, there were two companies in America who were run by people of color doing Shakespeare.

Now, there are 12, 13, 15 people of color at the Shakespeare Theatre Association, which is a conference for the leaders, of producers, and educators, and managing directors, and board members who are in charge of creating opportunities for people in Shakespeare.

Of course, when the George Floyd thing happened and the Black Lives Matter thing happened, then everyone started to shift. There was a slow shift happening prior to that. But then, I look at and I see Detroit Shakespeare and these—and then of course, even the Classical Theater of Harlem began to be run by a person of color, because it wasn’t like that before.

It’s just really interesting to see more opportunities for artists of color. The Public Theater always had “mix-y mix-y” casts. I call it “mix-y mix-y” when the races are mixed. Oregon Shakespeare always had mixed cast. There were few opportunities, even in Canada, at Stratford, for artists of color.

But now I see more opportunities on the stage, behind the stage, making the big decisions. All of that has shifted since I started, 20 years ago, when I started Take Wing and Soar.

BOGAEV: I did hear though, when you started to answer this question, that you got a little quiet. You said, “It’s better,” but it’s not good enough is what it felt like. Not anywhere near. And I’m thinking you mentioned the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There’s been this big fracas with Nataki Garrett there. A person of color leading that organization seems to have really run up against a lot.

BYRD: Absolutely. That’s part of my hesitation, is that as I see the artists of color come into positions that are not just on the stage, but behind the stage and become the decision makers. Sometimes people don’t like that. Some folks don’t like the sharing of power or to feel like someone’s taking over something that belongs to them.

You know, it is still sad and frustrating to see that there are folks on the planet who still have problems with people of color. So one of the reasons for making Becoming Othello is to help to shift that. Help people to see it firsthand. What happens when you disturb the life flow of an individual, particularly a person of color, when they’re on their correct trajectory and correct path, and you try to throw roadblocks in the way? What happens to that person?

Then by the time I’ve finished the story, I’m asking us to come together. What if we can put away that which separates us and lay hold to that which unites? Imagine for a moment what we all might be able to do in this world. As I hope we continue to go and grow, my hope is that we can go and grow together.


WITMORE: Debra Ann Byrd’s one-woman show, Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, is now running at Seattle Shakespeare Company through January 29th. For tickets and more information, visit

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from John Buroker at Hear By Sound in Seattle, and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.