REVIEW: Becoming Othello – a Black Girl’s Journey

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Debra Ann Byrd picture at the Birthplace by Mark Williamson

Sara Westh reviews Becoming Othello: a Black Girl’s Journey, 9th October

It is difficult to summarise a performance as personal and resonant as that given by Debra Ann Byrd (the Artistic Director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival) at the Shakespeare centre. Building on the twin foundations of black history and her personal life’s journey, Debra Ann described how she came to play Othello.

At this, the first performance of her one-woman show Becoming Othello: a Black Girl’s Journey, Debra Ann brought us into whirling histories of subjugation, abuse, loss, but, also, into twinkles of blinding light, love, creativity, and victory. With a truly singular dramatic talent, she showed us not only how she had prepared for the part, but told the story of a human being travelling toward the apotheosis (so far) of her art.

She recognises the same early modern cadences in Shakespeare’s plays as she finds in the King James Bible and by letting life and drama twine together, she made us feel, in an immediate and visceral way, how much of herself the actor gives, and how entirely a role enmeshes itself in the fabric of her being.

In the end, Debra Ann saw her performance as a way of bringing Harlem to Henley Street, as she said Paul Edmondson and Paul Prescott had brought Henley Street to Harlem in their epic journey around North American Shakespeare festivals in 2014 (where they first met Debra Ann). Her show reached for unity with her prayer “we must solve our problems globally – we must save the world together”.

After its premiere in the Shakespeare Centre, Becoming Othello: a Black Girl’s Journey will be touring the States.

The next SBT Research Conversation is on Wednesday, 13th November 5pm to 6pm at the Shakespeare Centre: Elizabeth Jeffery (The Shakespeare Institute) will explore Shakespeare in minority languages. Entry is free and no tickets are required.