Debra Ann Byrd went to college in New York with intentions of becoming a Shakespearean actor. As she was nearing a showcase performance before graduation, she was told that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to present any classical work. Had she considered August Wilson?

“I almost quit the theater because I felt put out, kept out, shut out, discouraged,” Byrd said.

Instead, she channeled that feeling into making a space for artists of color in the classics, founding the Harlem Shakespeare Festival in 2013. And on stage, she’s tackled one of Shakespeare’s great roles, playing Othello three times.

These experiences, along with her ancestry and a sometimes turbulent upbringing, inform Byrd’s solo show, “The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey,” opening Jan. 6 at Seattle Shakespeare Company.

We spoke with Byrd about her experiences on stage and the process of putting together her solo show as a writer-in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. Excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.

How do your life story and Shakespeare come together in “Becoming Othello”?


The big, broad brush strokes of what it would be all happened in Stratford. While I was in Stratford, my DNA results came in. I realized that I had English, Wales, Spanish, Portuguese, like five or six different African countries. I always thought I was made up of a lot of different things. My father’s Puerto Rican and my mother is a Black woman from the Georgia area. It was just really interesting to actually get the DNA results because then I was able to break it down.

I began to look back at the DNA ancestry of the females in my life on my mother’s side and my father’s side and seeing how I [could] incorporate them — tell my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s story while telling my own.

It was also really wonderful to begin to match my life experiences with text from Shakespeare’s works. By the time I was done, I ended up with like 200 lines of Shakespeare in the play. And then of course, all the people that had influences on me like Martin Luther King — sometimes his words would come to my head. It was really interesting adding [nods to] other people who were writers or speakers in there. So there’s a little James Baldwin, there’s a little Toni Morrison. I took the things of my life that I really love.

How did your experience of playing Othello on stage evolve over the three times you did it?

The very first time (at a 2013 staged reading), the director said this is a man’s story and that I would be playing Othello as a man. Immediately things started becoming very interesting. Just the process of removing the feminine and putting on masculine qualities. Another big thing was, ‘What the hell am I gonna look like as a man?’ I thought about my son and what he looked like, and then I just borrowed his whole look, and it worked out. I was really grateful. I didn’t want to be a funny looking man.

By the second time I did it (in 2015), I knew that I could do it, based on the response from the first one. [But] at first, I wasn’t feeling very much like an actor. It just wasn’t clicking. Then I got an acting coach, and he taught me some things about what Othello might be thinking and my own acting journey, and those discoveries really helped me to find him.


By the third time (in 2019), I was doing less of removing all things feminine. I decided to let feminine quality live in the spirit of the man. And I think that made him flow differently. He was more vulnerable. So now, you got to see a man with a broken heart. You see how he was in pain when he really believed that he had lost everything. 

What about the play “Othello” speaks to you?

I like the language. Of course all the time [with Shakespeare], it’s the language, but it’s different in “Othello.” Iago is like, “I hate the moor.” He’s more plain in his speech. But when I look at Othello, he’ll say, “Methinks it should be a huge eclipse of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe should yawn at alteration.” I’m like, “What?!” And when he starts going on these tirades about how he lost everything: “Farewell the tranquil mind.”

At first when I was playing him, as I went off into those great big emotional soliloquies, at one point, I said, “Shakespeare, what’s wrong with you? Did you not like that actor that you wrote these lines for? This is hard. This is painful.”

It was a beautiful and wonderful challenge for an actor and that’s really one of the main reasons why I wanted to play him because I knew that it would be a great big challenge to play him.

As the artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare Company, what’s your perspective on where Shakespeare performance goes from here?

People like the classics and heightened-language text. It’s not going anywhere. For us, who Shakespeare lives in our souls, that’s not going to shift because someone says something about the dead old white man. There’s a lot of dead old white men. There’s a lot of dead old Black men, too.

We understand that sometimes they say Shakespeare gets more play than anyone else and everyone else, and we can see how that’s beginning to shift and change, so that other artists can get opportunities to have their work shine. But for the most part, Shakespeare’s been hanging out for over 400 years. I don’t think he’s going anywhere yet.

“The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey”

By Debra Ann Byrd; Jan. 6-29 (previews begin Jan. 4); Seattle Shakespeare Company at Center Theatre, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $35-$62; 206-733-8222,