We are becoming more used to seeing female actors taking on Shakespeare’s well-known male characters (hello King John on page 8!) but what is it like to play a member of the opposite sex?
Here to tell us is American actor Debra Ann Byrd, who performs her new solo show Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust centre on Henley Street this Wednesday (9th October).
Debra undertook a remarkable journey to take on the role of Othello — which she first performed in her home town at the Harlem Shakespeare Festival in 2013.
Herald arts met Debra in late-2017 when she became writer-in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. During her time in Stratford she recorded her experiences on becoming ‘The Moor of Venice’. Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey was based on her work at the Birthplace.
The show is a 90-minute, five-act, living memoir which, according to the press release, “explores a young woman’s acting journey on the road to becoming Othello, her trials and triumphs with race and the classics, some memorable experiences on her gender flipped journey and her fun-loving and tumultuous youth.”
The show includes multimedia images, lyrical language from Black women playwrights, William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and the King James Bible, along with soulful songs and the music that shaped Debra’s life in her beloved Harlem home.
Recalling how she got hooked on Shakespeare she tells Herald arts: “It was 1996 and I had been acting about seven years and there was a troupe of black actors that came to Harlem and performed some Shakespeare at the Victoria 5 Theater, and I said that’s interesting I would like to try that!”
Aged 30, Debra duly enrolled at the Manhattan’s Marymount University to study acting — and in particular Shakespeare.
While at university she began to learn Shakespeare’s monologues — male characters as well as female. Director and actor Charles Dutton came and did an Othello workshop to the students, which, says Debra was inspirational: “I thought ‘I want to do that!’”
Roll on 13 years and Debra finally got her wish — having formed Take Wing and Soar Productions and founded The Harlem Shakespeare Festival, where her Othello was first performed in 2013, and later revived in 2015.
Of that first performance, Debra says: “I was scared out of my wits. It was in a church basement in Harlem. I felt safe there but everything that went wrong did; it was an old building, so you’d plug something in and fuse the whole basement.
“It was very challenging — I was producer as well as being Othello — but I felt like it was very necessary. I got a lot of feedback, good and bad: ‘you’re brave’; others said I was crazy to want to play a man.”
To prepare for the role of Othello, Debra explains that because she did not want to be ‘feminine’ onstage, she practised moving and talking more like a man first for eight weeks before rehearsals: “I flattened down my boobs, didn’t put make-up or perfume on; didn’t do my hair, and I walked the world like that and it was difficult to go from this [she indicates her curves] to that. I didn’t wear the beard though because I lived in the neighbourhood, where I am a community leader, and I didn’t want them to think I had gone crazy.”
Debra says this is when the idea of keeping a ‘Becoming Othello’ journal first occurred to her. “The way people behaved towards me changed. People on the street and also friends who knew me well began to wonder if I was okay. So I thought I need to write about this. This journey needs to be written about!”
Physically becoming Othello wasn’t always easy. Debra explains: “I’d got the character of Othello down in rehearsal — my voice was low, movement more masculine — but then some feminine health issues began to affect me, so I didn’t feel like a man; and my brain was rattled and I thought I absolutely have to write this.”
Becoming Othello takes place during the UK Black History Month, which runs from 1st to 31st October. Debra’s visit has been arranged by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The University of Warwick working together with theatre producer Voza Rivers and the Harlem Shakespeare Festival.
WHEN AND WHERE: Becoming Othello has two UK performances. Firstly on 9th October at The Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon at 5pm, free, no booking required; and on 16th October at Warwick Arts Centre’s Helen Martin Studio in Coventry.