Categories - Theatre Shakespeare
‘Eirenicon’ is a word that runs like a golden thread throughout Debra Ann Byrd’s solo theatre piece, Becoming Othello:A Black Girl’s Journey, and it embodies rather well her life’s ethos of taking those things that are matters of conflict, looking for a point of resolution to transform the status quo, and moving forward to bring about peace.
Written as part of her residency with Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, in association with the University of Warwick and Misfit Inc, the autobiographical Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, draws Byrd’s audience into a whirling, high energy, history of subjugation, abuse and loss, but also sparkles and dances with revelationary light, positivity, love, creativity, and victory. It is the story of a remarkable human being travelling towards the apotheosis of her art.
Byrd grew up in Spanish Harlem, her father absent, her mother an alcoholic who eventually died from her drink problem. She was abused, became pregnant as a teenager and, abandoned as a single parent, she was gang-raped. The only apparent constant in her life was the fundamentalist church she attended which eschewed modern versions of Scripture, preaching from the 1611 King James version. The rhythms and cadences of its language and stories were eirenicon to her unsettled existence. She loved to hear of the stuttering prophets who found their voices and purposes when they stood on high mountains, their attentive audience listening as they looked up from the valleys below, and she loved internalising the memory verses with their poetic motifs.
It was the church that gave Byrd her first experiences of both performing and leading from the front, and, for a time, it seemed that her future was to be one of training as a minister. Connections led to her becoming involved in ‘Gospel Theatre’, notably playing the part of Harriet Tubman, dubbed ‘the Moses of her people’ for her work in helping slaves escape and find their freedom via the Underground Railway movement; a part that opened for Byrd an awareness of black history.
At the age of twenty-six, Byrd was invited by a colleague to see a production at Harlem Theatre where a troupe of black actors were doing monologues and scenes from Shakespeare. It was the first time she had heard of Shakespeare, the first time she had encountered words from his texts and the first time she had understood that people of colour could be professional classical actors. She struggled to understand immediately what was happening, but recognised that the metres, rhythms and pulses of the language were deeply familiar to her, because they were the ones she had known since childhood through the King James Bible. More so, seeing the production was an epiphany that challenged her profoundly, bringing her to a realisation that she no longer wanted to commit to a ministerial training, but that she wanted to explore this playwright more and learn to speak his lines for herself.
Byrd enrolled at Marymount Manhatten College to study Acting. She had the good fortune to be taught the Classics modules by UK born actor, director and lecturer, Elizabeth Swain, who not only increased her passion for Shakespeare and all the Renaissance plays, but also gave her the expertise to perform the texts well, and to take the characters into her body and being. Shakespeare had well and truly wormed his way into her world.
On the last day of college, the realities struck home. An agent told her that, as a black female, she would never make a career in classical acting, least of all, Shakespeare. Feeling she’d lost sight of her dream and wasted the grant that had funded her education, letting down herself and others, she lay on her bed and cried.
But that spirit of eirenicon was fighting back. Byrd dried her tears, took a deep breath and looked for a way through that would transform the status quo and move the theatre to a place where there was parity and opportunity for every actor, regardless of colour, ethnicity, or gender.
In her first year of college, she had formed a theatrical support service named ‘Take Wing and Soar’ – the name taken from the Biblical reference in Isaiah about eagles being the birds that outstretch their wings and soar higher. It was the works of Shakespeare that had drawn Byrd to study. Acting Shakespeare had been her focus and purpose. Recognising that there must be many others who faced barriers, she reshaped her company to create a safe place where people of colour could play whatever parts they wanted without censure or judgement, but her vision was even bigger than that; Byrd wanted to encourage an environment where ‘all bases together’ flourished, no matter what their colour, race, indigenous identity, gender, background or culture. She wanted ALL to soar, and to do that they needed opportunity not just to recite the odd monologue or sonnet, but to take the lead parts and to explore Shakespeare’s characters in depth, so a further evolvement allowed her to become Founder and Artistic Director of Harlem Shakespeare Festival.
But what of her personal desire to play Shakespeare? As Artistic Director of Harlem Shakespeare Festival she now knew what the possibilities were when the plays find their way into new contexts, but it wasn’t until a conversation with LA actor Lisa Wolpe that she considered taking on Othello, with Wolpe as her Iago. The theatrical horizons were slowly changing, female actors began taking on male roles and she now had an opportunity to question how doing an all female version of the play changed/effected the story, and to explore fully whether a woman playing the male character in Shakespeare could be so convincing that she could be mistaken for a man. Byrd dropped her voice, and developed masculine gesture to such an extent that she began to live that persona off-stage, and discovered it was having a negative effect on those around her, who were unsure how to react to her. The role had completely enmeshed itself in the fabric of her being.
Byrd played Othello with as much dignity and respect as she could, discovering that when he was in pain, he went from a regular rhythm in his speech to words of three, four and five syllables, as oppose to normally when someone is angry where speech shortens to cursing words, or words of exclamation, that don’t extend beyond one or two syllables. Othello’s long emotional journey gave way to prolonged, flowery language and Byrd wanted to discover what those things really meant and why he was saying them. What was it that made Othello shift to a place where regular speech was no longer useful? Her investigations brought her experience of playing Othello full circle. Struck by the text given to Othello in Act 2, Scene 1,
'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate’
Byrd was arrested by the acknowledgement that Othello considered his soul to be a ‘her’. Othello had a feminine side, and in this recognition, Bryd began to further develop the character allowing her body to be ‘him’, but her soul to be ‘her’. In doing so, she found a balance between what was happening in performance, and how she was perceived off-stage by others.
Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey is a fascinating and vastly entertaining solo theatre piece. Byrd sings, dances, cries, draws upon the panoply of African-American voices that have served as spiritual guidance on her path towards gender-flipping on the classical stage, and she delivers the words that brought her to a new understanding not only of Shakespeare, but of her own place in the world, and of the opportunity that theatre as an entity offers for self-discovery. But it is also a testimony to Byrd's assertion that, “ … we must solve our problems globally - we must save the world together”.
When Byrd began the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, she was one of only two people of colour who ran Shakespeare companies in America. Now there are fourteen. Shift has started. In a recent interview with Paul Edmondson of Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, she reported that at the height of the Black Lives Matter campaign, following George Floyd’s death, colleagues were attacked and Byrd began to lose confidence, asking herself whether she had really achieved anything. But that spirit of eirenicon shone through again, and she recognised that she had to push through; to keep doing what she was doing, because even in the violence and turmoil, good things were happening.
Many people of colour had being ‘doing’ Shakespeare for years, but they were being ‘kept out, put out and shut out’; the fight to change the space, the world and the conversation needs to go on. Today, everyone is aware of the need for diversity and inclusion. It’s on the minds of every theatre producer across the globe, and, whilst shift has begun, the industry needs to continue to sit at the table and have those really tough conversations about what happened, what is happening now, and what the future needs to look like if we want to live in a world that is more peaceful than it has been in the past. A future where the only reason actors don’t get the part, or directors, producers or scenic artists the job, is because they weren’t the best in the room, not because they were black, Asian, Hispanic or had indigenous culture.
Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, is an inspirational piece, but then, it has its foundation in a woman who is truly inspirational herself. A woman who has figured out how to be her best self, both for herself and for the empowerment of those around her. Her eirenicon spirit has enabled her to traverse the helplessness and hopelessness, to find her place of victory and joy, and to encourage and support others to do the same.
A closing snippet from that same interview sums it all up. Paul Edmondson asks what she might hope her legacy will be. Byrd responds,
‘When life smacks you in the head and all you want to do is crawl under the covers and not venture out again, lie down for a second, take a breath and have a cry, but then wipe your face and get up and keep moving; and not just going through the motions. Get up and do something. Get up and live. Get up and love. Get up and find your excellence.’
Becoming Othello:A Black Girl's Journey
was performed as part of
York International Shakespeare Festival 2021.
The full programme can be seen here.
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I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.