Talking About It Plainly With Debra Ann Byrd

Debra Ann Byrd in "The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey." Photo by Lia Chang

Debra Ann Byrd deserves your attention—don’t worry, she’ll get it. A prolific writer, performer, and artistic director, Byrd is a theatre artist with a wardrobe of many hats and stories to share.

Seattle Shakespeare Company is kicking off 2023 with Byrd’s solo show The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey, directed by Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer. The play follows Byrd’s life as she performs as the titular character of Othello, a play by William Shakespeare known for its underlying racism. “As I was discovering Othello, the character, I started discovering things about myself as well,” Byrd said. “I kept telling myself, ‘I have to write about this.’ I always wanted to perform a solo show, so I thought this was a good opportunity to create one.”

Since this is Byrd’s first solo show, her first step was seeking education. “I went about the process of finding a coach to help me understand what it means to write a solo show,” Byrd said. “Then, I got another coach to help me make what I wrote into a more serious production for theatre audiences.”

After working with the coaches, she was unsure how to continue developing the play. “I’m a praying girl, so I thought about it, I prayed about it,” Byrd said. “Who is supposed to help me with this thing? What came to mind was a colleague and friend of mine, [Dr.] Paul Edmondson, the [Head] of Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.”

Edmondson and his team at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust loved Byrd’s concept and wanted to support the play. “They said, ‘Maybe we could bring her out to Stratford-upon-Avon to become the writer-in-residence here for a month and we can help develop the play,’” Byrd said. “We recorded like nine sessions of interviews, 45 minutes to an hour and 15 [minutes] each, to go over what I was thinking, why it was so personal, and why it was also so public. Why would audiences care? Why would it matter to the world?”

Performer Debra Ann Byrd stands on stage in a black dress with her arms raised above her head with a dagger in one hand.
Debra Ann Byrd in “The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey.” PHOTO BY LIA CHANG

Byrd continued to attain opportunities to develop the play through residencies at esteemed institutions such as Columbia University and the Folger Library in Washington D.C. “Then, I wrote a proposal so I could put some dramaturgical elements into the show, the history of Othello,” Byrd said. Eventually, Byrd brought in Tina Packer to mold and direct the production. “I reached out to Tina Packer, who was one of my teachers and mentors, and I thought she would be a great fit for the play,” Byrd said.

Packer’s prior experience gave Byrd a stronger understanding of the needs of solo work. “Tina Packer has worked on other solo shows, including ones that she wrote for herself, so she had a lot of knowledge,” Byrd said. “I went up and worked with her for weeks on end until it was time to go into rehearsal.”

Packer helped Byrd shape the play for regional theatre audiences, which are frequently not diverse in age or race. “I know that a lot of audiences are old and white and as the years go by, the young ones are getting old too,” Byrd said. Packer focused on what the audience takes away from the production. “Tina Packer would help me fine-tune those areas that needed to reach a little bit further to get an audience member to understand,” Byrd said.

“Even before we got to Shakespeare & Company, we knew that this show would first be seen by audiences in Stratford-upon-Avon, so we knew that they would be not only old and white, but old, white, and British. We thought about how we could break it down a little more so that audiences could understand from a cultural point of view what it is I’m trying to say.”

However, Byrd and Packer were confident that audiences would appreciate the production for its Shakespearean references if nothing else. “Because there are over 200 Shakespearean lines in it, we knew that people who like Shakespeare would love it,” Byrd said. “We took into consideration all of the audiences who might come and tried to make sure we had something in there for everyone.”

Performer Debra Ann Byrd sits on the ground with a woman's head in her lap wearing a red and gold robe.
Debra Ann Byrd as Othello and Natalie Andrews as Desdemona in “The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey.” PHOTO BY YASMIN LAWLER

Throughout the process, Byrd learned the importance of balancing authenticity with tools for audience engagement. “At first, I was telling the story to get it out of my body and into the world,” Byrd said. “How do we take all of these things, mix it in with Shakespeare, and tell the stories? What is it that we can do together to create something that is meaningful in the world?”

The play analyzes Othello from a fresh perspective “to encourage, to challenge, [and] to inspire. Is he a mad man or is he a hurt man?” Byrd said. “When I broke it down, I saw that Othello was hurt. I say it in the play: if we tell ourselves the truth, we have a better chance of making the world a better place. We need to talk about it plainly.”

The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey, presented by Seattle Shakespeare Company, is playing January 3–29, 2023. Tickets are available online.

Kyle Gerstel is a 15-year-old musical theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. In addition to writing for the TeenTix Newsroom and his school newspaper The Islander, Kyle frequently performs with Youth Theatre Northwest and works with Penguin Productions to foster an equitable theatre community. When not in rehearsal, you can probably find him writing poetry, rewatching Promising Young Woman or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Stages through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.