“A Black Girl’s Journey” given to Skidmore by Debra Ann Byrd – The Skidmore News
Image courtesy of The berkshire eagle
On October 1, Skidmore College had its first live performance at the JKB Theater in over a year and a half: Becoming Othello: The Journey Of A Black Girl, performed by Debra Ann Byrd. Byrd (who uses the pronouns she / they) is an actor, director and founder of both Harlem Shakespeare party and Take Wing And Soar Productions. His education includes a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance from Marymount Manhattan College and actor training at Shakespeare & Company, Shakespeare Lab at Public Theater, and Arts Leadership Institute at Columbia University and Teachers College. She has received numerous awards including the NAACP Shirley Farmer Woman of Excellence Award 2016 and the LPTW Lucille Lortel 2009 Price.
In her one-person performance, viewers were able to experience the memoir of Debra Ann Byrd performed and written by her, and directed by Tina Packer, director and Founding Artistic Director of the Shakespeare & Company Shakespeare Festival. Before watching Byrd’s performance, I had never seen a show with a single actor that lasted over an hour and a half. I was extremely skeptical of how this would be presented and how someone could maintain the audience’s interest and energy for such a long period of time. However, Byrd proved my doubts to be false as I stayed glued and mindful of the performance and the story it brought to us!
The memoirs were teeming with emotions and themes of love, desire, exploration and persistence in her life stories; that of William Shakespeare Othello is related to Byrd as both a metaphor and a literal event that occurred in his life course. Othello is the story of a black male general who falls in love with a white woman in Venice, Italy, and their ensuing romantic downfall. Using hard-hitting, hard-hitting lines and questions that stood out to me, Byrd conveyed an overwhelming amount of themes that encompassed a relatable journey to cement his own legacy and make an impact in our physical world which is larger than oneself.
Debra Ann Byrd’s memoir began by discussing the stories of her ancestors and the experiences of her ancestors brought to America by slave ships. She spoke of her childhood, as an Afro-Latina girl in Harlem, New York, including her upbringing, with some of her brightest moments and curiosities, to some of her darkest moments. We hear about his mix of cultures, being Puerto Rican and black. She talks about her Aboriginal background and her feeling of being a Two-Spirit as a child, her connection to her faith and the church. She introduced us to her life in New York as an adult, with a sick daughter and herself as a mother suffering from depression. Finally, we see her through her conversations with God, coming out of bad weather and continuing the theater as she always wanted. Byrd was able to build his own legacy and is still in the theater, having won numerous awards and initiatives.
“If I get up from here, I must be excellent. I can’t be ordinary or simple, ”Byrd expressed to God. Here on the show, she showed how vulnerable she was at this point with looming tragedy in her life due to her daughter’s declining health. She was told by her friend that she should not give up. She responded with the quote above, which in my opinion was indicative of human existence. Especially in Western culture, there are feelings of wanting to leave a mark on the world and do something that lives beyond yourself, that can help or be appreciated by others. That’s when she asked herself: “Can the theater help me change?”
“What happens to a delayed dream?” Byrd wondered. As a black woman, she encountered many prejudices and had to be aware of what it meant to be an actress in the classics, which was and still is traditionally performed by white people. Byrd overcame some hurdles in the classics, like being told she should stick to August Wilson productions; which were productions created by August Wilson, an American playwright who is credited for presenting African-American experiences in the theater. She was told after all of her years of classical learning that she didn’t fit the mold for playing in the classics. We are often told that our dreams may not be practical enough due to the competitiveness of industries or its lack of lucrative profit; Due to Byrd’s intersectional identity of being a black woman in the competitive performing arts field, she was discriminated against because people like her were not widely represented in the classics, so her dream was ” postponed ”. Fortunately, she persevered and started her own theater company called “Take Wing and Soar”, and performed her own plays while helping young actors of color get training and opportunities.
“What’s the genre anyway?” Byrd questioned. This question is becoming paramount in our current climate. We unpack our gender assumptions and norms. We recognize that sexuality and gender are things that can be fluid and constantly change beyond the binary and heteronormative rhetoric that surrounds us. Byrd, in their history, meets the genre in several ways. Their story takes audiences back to their childhood as we visualize their family life and childhood, explaining how they had to conform but felt two fiery in their gender identities, linked to their Indigenous background from a young age.
When they first saw Othello executed, they knew they had to perform it themselves. They chose to produce an all-feminine and multiracial piece by Othello. With this, they chose a path of what many would call the “method of action”, studying people and the ways in which they interacted; they cut their hair shorter and feel comfortable in a more masculine presentation of themselves. They were appalled at how the public began to treat them according to this expression. While questioning their gender, they also questioned their sexuality. During this process they said, “I thought I was getting Othello, but it turns out I was getting undone.” Byrd explained that they became “clear,” presumably from these notions socialized from birth. In Becoming Othello, they destroyed the race, gender, and sexuality that held them back on their journey. Becoming Othello leads to self-reflection.