Seattle Shakespeare Company transforms classic productions with diverse cast

The Seattle Shakespeare Company has prided itself on mounting the playwright’s classic productions with a cast that is culturally and racially diverse. The group recently hosted a one-woman play that showed how much progress has been made on that front.

KIRO 7′s Ranji Sinha sat down with the star of that show, Debra Ann Byrd, who described what lead her to write and perform, “The World’s A Stage: Become Othello a Black Girl’s Journey.” She was named artistic director of the Southwest Shakespeare Company and also is the founder of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival. She has years of training as a classically trained actress and producer.

If one thing is clear through the history of film and stage, many actors have played William Shakespeare’s Othello. The list includes film and TV actor James Earl Jones, actor Laurence Fishburne who has starred in many film roles, Laurence Olivier, who infamously played the role in blackface, Patrick Stewart of Star Trek The Next Generation, and X-Men films also played the role in a production where the races of all characters were reversed.

Actor Mekhi Phifer took on the role in a modern reinterpretation that centers around a high school basketball team, a film titled “O” with Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles. To that extensive list, we can now add the name of another genre-breaking actor, Debra Ann Byrd.

Byrd has played Othello and has her own one-woman play that just recently finished a run at Seattle’s Shakespeare Theater Company. The play, which she has performed around the U.S. and overseas, examines Byrd breaking a glass ceiling and tearing up casting notes on her road to stardom in Shakespeare. She said at one point, she knew that Othello was not out of reach for her as a performer.

“There would become a time when women would begin to play male roles,” said Byrd.

Byrd admits never guessed Shakespeare would be a career, but an inspiring performance by Charles S. Dutton helped.

“Not only do I want to play Othello, I want to play like I saw him do it,” said Byrd.

Byrd realized fairly quickly that just the achievement of playing Othello was not enough.

“I kept saying to myself along my journey, ‘I need to write about this,’” said Byrd.

She created her own show, which became a deep dive into Shakespeare, Byrd’s personal history, ancestry, and occupying a world some teachers said might not be for her, the world of the classical plays of Shakespeare.

She recounted how teachers at one point tried to guide her away from the plays and performances.

“I walked out of the class, tears running down my face, not knowing what to do. I sobbed about all my dreams being dashed, I sobbed for every black girl that had been disenchanted,” said Byrd.

She quickly learned that even though she felt done with William Shakespeare, the playwright, his legacy was not exactly done with her.

“When the Shakespeare birthplace trust said, ‘yes’ we want you to come and be the writer in residence, now that’s the top,” said Byrd.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust isn’t the only group that helped her onto the path. She says the Folger Shakespeare Library and others have helped her achieve the dream of being a player in the Bard’s famous work.

“People who I meet who have seen my Othello and say, ‘You were born to be Othello,’ now that sounds weird and it feels weird,” said Byrd.

She now brings Shakespeare to new audiences and firmly believes that Shakespeare’s work is not meant to be read, but meant to be played.

“I can sit there and I can read Queen Elizabeth, or I can play it and really live it,” said Byrd.

She says nothing beats a live performance by those occupying the famous characters created by Shakespeare.

“It comes alive and it’s meant to be live and alive,” said Byrd.

Byrd now creates a safe space for actors at SW Shakespeare Company, almost de-mystifying the man, the myth, and legend.

“I knew I wanted to shift the world for the better — but then understanding that Shakespeare would be my medium was an interesting discovery,” said Byrd.

She says her own play is about weathering the storm and reaching new heights while making a simple demand of her audience to join her in appreciation of how the unexpected can and does fit Shakespeare.

“Can’t we do this thing together, but if we put away that which separates us and lay hold to that which unites,” said Byrd.