Harlem actress Debra Ann Byrd on playing Othello

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Debra Ann Byrd at Shakespeare's Birthplace. Photo by Mark Williamson

Debra Ann Byrd undertook a remarkable journey to take on the role of Othello — which she performed in her native Harlem. The actress is now recording her experiences on becoming ‘The Moor of Venice’ as writer-in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace. She tells Gill Sutherland about her visit to Stratford.

STOP PRESS Debra Ann will be taking part at special event with distinguished actor Adrian Lester on Saturday, 4th November at 3.30pm in the Shakespeare Centre. The admission is free for members of the British Shakespeare Association and £5 to non-members. Tickets available on the door. See www.shakespeare.org.uk

Actor Ira Aldridge

Behind a door of a research library upstairs at the labyrinthian Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on Henley Street one very happy American actress is very busy. She has rummaged in the archive and dug up all the photos and drawings of actors who have played Othello and has displayed them ahead of Herald arts’ scheduled interview with her.

The photos make a stunning, and somewhat disturbing sight. Dating back 160 years, the images mainly show white actors ‘blacked up’ to play Othello, all of them are male.

The Herald photographer and I are enthusiastically greeted by Debra who is clutching her most prized find, a 19th-century playbill promoting the appearance of black actor Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre, which stood in Chapel Lane, Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Everyone thinks that Paul Robeson was the first black Othello in Stratford, which he played in 1959. But here’s Ira, who came in 1851,” says Debra gleefully of the American actor who later became British.

Debra is immensely and immediately likable. She’s a sassy Harlem native, informative and passionate — and her story is a fascinating one.

She’s come to the Birthplace from New York to take up a writer’s residency, and is here until 6th November, by which time she hopes to have completed her journal, Becoming Othello, about how she became the first black woman to play Othello onstage (if anyone knows of anyone else that can claim this title, do let us know!).

Debra is a fifth generation Harlem resident and was a mum of two when she got hooked on the idea of performing Shakespeare.

“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 of 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 be a man.”

At this recollection, Debra’s voice rises to amused outrage and she gives a wiggle of her voluptuous figure: “I don’t want to be a man. I do well as a woman! When I’m Debra Ann like this people open doors, give me seats — people want to smile in your face and flirt.”

Turning serious she continues: “I find my power as a woman… when I was dressing as a dude everyday my life shifted a lot.”

To prepare for the role of Othello, Debra explains that because she did not want to be ‘feminine’ onstage, she practiced 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 [again 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 OK. 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.”

Debra says her purpose in creating the journal is to address several issues.

“I think the biggest, strongest issue for me was can women play men’s roles successfully? Playing a male lead is three or four times more demanding. For example Cleopatra has 16 scenes whereas Mark Antony has 40. I said the only way to find out if I could do it was to actually do it!”

The feedback from her performances of Othello were hugely positive, with a lot of women in particular saying it was empowering to see Debra take on such a role. She adds that she was particularly pleased that her son came to see it five times, a great accolade. “My daughter is 35 and my son is 25. I borrowed his look for my Othello. I didn’t want to look ridiculous or feel uncomfortable — I said I know what a handsome man looks like… it worked and I felt comfortable.

“My son usually only comes once to a show but he said he kept coming because he wanted to see what he looked like when he was mad!”

The Becoming Othello residency came about through Debra’s connections with Stratford. She met the Birthplace’s head of research and knowledge, Dr Paul Edmondson, and Dr Paul Prescott, associate professor at the University of Warwick, when the academics visited the Harlem Shakespeare Festival as part of the 2015 Shakespeare on the Road, when the two institutes looked at the untold story of the Bard in the USA during the 450th anniversary of his birth. Now the Birthplace and university are working together to sponsor Debra’s Stratford visit.

Debra says that Becoming Othello will be a small volume in three sections that will explore her acting journey, race and gender and her journal will also include research from the archive.

As we chat we drift back over to Debra’s display of past Othellos. October is Black History Month, and I ask her what she thinks of all these blacked up faces playing Othello.

“If you look at this table of 30 photos there are maybe three black men, and this is typical of representation even now, except perhaps in the role of Othello. It is incredible to me that while the first black theatre company did Shakespeare in New York people were still slaves. Those actors like Ira were so brave.

“But I’m not angry when I look at these photos — they look to me like art. I don’t think about their blackface so much as the artists playing the role and understand the connection with that. I understand that if you really give yourself over to the role of Othello it grabs you in a way that it takes a lot of balls to actually go and do it.”

And without doubt this amazing actress has plenty of those… Metaphorically speaking of course.