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Debra Ann Byrd: Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey

posted on October 7th, 2021 by Gemma Siegler

By Gemma Siegler ’22

Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey written and performed by Debra Ann Byrd was a powerful, emotional example of what it means to bring your full self to the stage. Through the lens of her transformative experience playing Othello in the Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s all-women production of the play with the same title, we are transported to different traumatic, thrilling, or exciting moments in Byrd’s life. 

Debra Ann Byrd during the beginning chant

The one-woman show begins with Byrd calling on her ancestors with a chant and speaking directly to her audience about the ways in which her ancestry influences how she moves through the world. From this introduction to the piece, audiences are able to ground themselves in the work. I found myself thinking back to these opening moments when Byrd would speak about a particularly troubling moment in her life. I found myself thinking back to these opening moments when Byrd would share something joyful with us. The introduction provided me, as an audience member, a throughline of the production. 

I was really struck by the scarf Byrd would bring with her when she would travel on stage. She began the show with the scarf on her head, and, by the end of the introductory chant, she removed it and took it with her as she walked throughout the space. Each time Byrd would begin a new beat in the piece, the scarf came with her. This was a very powerful visual moment in the piece, as it seemed to represent Byrd’s connection to the spirits of her ancestors that she evoked in the beginning. No matter what the situation, Byrd carried her ancestor’s influence with her, just as she carried the scarf. 

Debra Ann Byrd transforming the headscarf into a blanket

The way Byrd seamlessly melded her own text with the traditional Shakespeare text was one of my favorite elements of the piece. As a theater student who has read Shakespeare plays for the past four years, I loved being able to use my knowledge to differentiate between the texts; however, what was most exciting to me was that, sometimes, I couldn’t tell the difference. When Byrd began talking about how some of her acting professors told her she couldn’t perform the classics professionally, I thought back to some of the moments where I couldn’t tell if she was speaking her text or Shakespeare and chuckled to myself. Not only can Byrd act Shakespeare, but she also has such a deep understanding of the texts that she can smoothly transition from her own text to the classical. Of course Byrd can perform the classics professionally, and the seamless juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s words with her own only further emphasizes the ridiculousness of that statement. 

Debra Ann Byrd using Shakespearean props

This piece, at its core, is about finding happiness when things around you seem hopeless. Byrd moves us through her life story, filled with peaks and valleys, gracefully allowing the audience to experience both her pain and joy. 


Gemma Siegler’22 is a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Skidmore Theater Living Newsletter

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