How acting helped SW Shakespeare’s new director through tough times

Debra Ann Byrd was center stage at Shakespeare’s home theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, performing her one-woman show for the first time in 2019.

The Shakespearean lines evoked vivid memories of his mother’s murder in New York. Her life story, center stage as she performed “Becoming Othello: A Black Woman’s Journey.”

“It was magical,” she said.

Byrd is the new artistic director of the Southwest Shakespeare Company. Southwest Shakespeare Company is a Mesa-based organization that places performance at the forefront of how it recreates the dynamic themes of Shakespeare’s work.

Byrd joins the company after founding the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and Take Wing and Soar Productions in New York. Both of these theater companies exist to provide opportunities for minority groups.

“I feel very honored to be here,” Byrd said. “It’s a blessing to have such a great responsibility serving the people of Arizona. “I’m excited to expand our mission, grow it, grow the business, and see what blessings we can create by Arizona. I will ask, ‘how can we take Shakespeare and make it beautiful for all audiences in Arizona?

Byrd has been named Writer-in-Residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Artist-in-Residence at the Folger Institute, A’Lelia Bundles Community Fellow at Columbia University, Virtual Artist-in-Residence at the Center at West Park, and recently worked as an artist in residency at the Southwest Shakespeare Company for the past three years.

An advocate for minority groups in the world of American classical theater, Byrd hopes to foster diversity and inclusion at Southwest Shakespeare as she did in Harlem. She also hopes to develop a wider audience and make Shakespearean theater accessible to more people through more diverse performances across the valley.

His journey has not been easy, says Byrd. But it was extraordinary, she confided to The Republic, laughing.

“You just go through it one day at a time,” Byrd said. “One fucking day at a time.”

Byrd grew up in a diverse neighborhood

Harlem, E. 111th Street, was Byrd’s home. Chalkboard hopscotch covered the sidewalks where she and her friends played double Dutch, roller-skated and built race cars from old shopping carts.

At the end of the street was the bodega where Byrd had coffee con leche and across the street was the small market where Byrd and his grandmother, Nana, did their shopping. Spanish songs and nursery rhymes echoed through the streets.

Although Byrd lived in a small apartment with her immediate family and some of her extended family, the whole block – with Irish, Italians, Hispanics and African Americans – became one family, she said. declared.

“I grew up with all kinds of people with all kinds of life and all kinds of culture,” Byrd said. “I think that’s why I understand diversity, inclusion and equity the way I do.”

Her life in Harlem changed when she was a teenager

But at 16, warm and welcoming E. 111th St. was gone for Byrd. She became pregnant and was placed in foster care. She was then on the street as a single mother.

A year later, Byrd’s mother was stabbed and killed in the same neighborhood she had once known as safe. Ten years later, his father died.

“Pain is like my cousin,” Byrd said. “It’s something that lives a little under my skin, and if you touch it the wrong way, then it’s going to hurt.”

Byrd contemplated suicide, but the thought of leaving her child alone stopped her.

“The one thing I heard playing over and over in my head is that if you die, who’s going to take care of that little baby you just had?” she said.

At the time, Byrd encountered theater in church. A theater production needed an actress to play Harriet Tubman for a black history event. Byrd signed up.

“The next thing you know I was watching a troupe of black artists perform Shakespeare,” Byrd said. “

Byrd, who was studying to become a reverend at the time, fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays, noticing a similarity to the King James Bible. Soon she had dropped out of seminary and enrolled in college to study Shakespeare. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, graduating from Marymount Manhattan College at age 34 with a Bachelor of Arts in Shakespearean Studies.

Shakespeare helped her through more difficult times

The more time Byrd spent in the theater world, the more she realized the lack of opportunity for people of color in classical theater, even though African-American actors had worked in the Shakespearean world for hundreds of years.

Amid Byrd’s debut in the acting world, tragedy struck again. His daughter, Martha, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. After four years of illness, Byrd lay down next to her daughter in hospice care. With his daughter’s life nearly over, Byrd thought her life was over as well.

“I lay down to move on and die,” Byrd said. “But a friend of mine called me and said, ‘Just because your daughter is dying doesn’t mean you have to die too. If she hadn’t been born, you would already be dead.

“I spoke with God,” Byrd continued. “And He said to me, ‘There is a work and a service that you must do as a servant of order.’ And now I see it has to do with race relations across Shakespeare’s genre.

Byrd’s vision became a reality when she founded Take Wing and Soar productions, a company that created opportunities for people of color in the world of American classical theater. Ten years later, Byrd founded the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, a theater festival with a social justice mission to provide opportunities for classically trained actors of color. This year is its 20th anniversary and the festival will continue despite Byrd’s new role in Phoenix.

“There are still a lot of narrow-minded people who believe that people of color aren’t capable of doing things that they believe are of high caliber,” Byrd said. “Like ballet, like opera, like conducting, like performing in plays where we use heightened language, but really, anyone who speaks English can be trained to do Shakespeare.”

Discover ‘Othello’ and tell your own story

Byrd has always acted in Shakespearean plays – and in 2013 she began her journey to play Othello. After seeing African-American actor Charles S. Dutton play the role, Byrd felt inspired to do it herself. In 2013, Byrd read the script aloud. And From 2013 to 2017, Byrd toured the country as Othello.

The transformation into a male character began in Byrd’s daily life. For eight weeks, Byrd adopted a masculine personality and appearance in hopes of truly becoming the character she would play on stage. No makeup, no perfume, no jewelry, except for Othello’s gold hoop earrings.

Byrd then changed the way he walked, sat and spoke. She lowered her voice an octave the entire time – and cut her long hair into a short, curly afro.

She noticed that people no longer offered her seats on the bus, held the doors open, or smiled at her.

“It was really weird to me,” Byrd said. “I realized that on a real, visceral, low level, men were treated differently from me. I also realized that I was being talked about, avoided, and felt bad because I looked like a transgender person. I started to feel like, ‘How does it feel to be a transgender person, and the pain of rejection it might feel.’

Soon Byrd knew she had to share this emotional, physical and mental journey. She began writing her solo show, “Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey”, which she produced and directed herself while a writing resident at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2017. She performed the show at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. for the first time in 2019.

Change of scenery in Arizona

The show – a 90-minute play in three acts – tells Byrd’s story. The story of his upbringing in Spanish Harlem. The story of her journey as a single mother with her sick daughter. The story of her parents’ death, the story of her rape. In a play that blended Shakespearean writing with his own memoir, Byrd told the story of his triumph amid his struggles.

“Sometimes people who are hurting make really bad decisions, and Othello was one of those people who made those bad decisions,” Byrd said. “He killed his wife and himself. When pain came into my life, I decided to do something different. I realized that I didn’t have to choose death. I could choose death. life.

Its first performance in England became the first of a long series. She has performed at Lincoln Center and the United Solo Festival in Times Square, the University of Chicago and Coventry in the UK, among others. Byrd hopes to perform more shows at Southwest Shakespeare, in addition to touring the West Coast.

For now, Byrd is settling in Arizona. Here, she says, she can do the work for which she is called: to serve and love her community through Shakespeare.

“My mind, my soul, my spirit changed for the better when I came here,” Byrd said. “The scenery, the sky, the mountains, all that stuff about Arizona brings joy to my soul,” Byrd said with a smile. “Being in Arizona and spending some quiet time here makes me happy. When I’m in Arizona, the world is a better place and I can help make the world a better place.”

Contact the reporter at [email protected] Follow her on Instagram @sofia.krusmark

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