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Playwright makes space for Black representation in classical theatre

Black playwrights
Posted at 2:06 PM, Feb 03, 2023

SEATTLE, Wash. — Watching Debra Ann Byrd take the stage is something unforgettable

"It is sometimes a difficult story. Sometimes it's a challenging story, but it is a story of hope," she said, referencing her autobiographical solo show Becoming Othello: A Black girl's journey, performed at Seattle Shakespeare Company.

While her work shows that she was clearly born to take the stage, her journey to it was anything but given to her.

"The every Black girl who had been disenchanted and disillusioned by being told, 'You can't perform the classics,' I wanted to be a voice for them. I wanted to be a voice for the people who feel like they had no hope," she said.

Show business is rarely easy, but the discrimination Debra Ann says she and many Black actors and playwrights face in their theatre careers has been a barrier difficult to overcome.

"I decided somebody has to fix this, and maybe that's somebody's me," she said.

According to the New York Times, the Broadway theater season right before the pandemic featured only two Black playwrights. The season after it and the nationwide racial reckoning, the number increased to 8. This represents some of the progress made in American theatre, especially when it comes to featuring work written by Black playwrights, as the theater is a powerful way to open minds.

"It was very important that people saw, physically saw, people of color on the stage performing the classics because some people don't believe it until they see," she said.

Debra Ann fell in love with Shakespeare in the 90s when she saw a Black troop performing his work. It inspired her to later start a theater company featuring actors of color and to found the Harlem Shakespeare Festival. She herself has played Othello three times. While she's a groundbreaker, she says she's only following history.

"Way back in 1821, before Black people were free from slavery, there were Black people doing Shakespeare in New York," she said. "I can't do it because what? Because you're lying."

Debra Ann believes misconceptions about certain industries or arts shouldn't hold people back, and on this Black History Month, she invites people outside of the Black community to seek out not only performances by people of color but the stories behind what it took to get them to the stage.

"If I can make it visible, if I can make people see it, see us, and not just people of color, mixed race cast, you'll see the stage won't explode. The show becomes alive. It has some salt and some pepper, some paprika, and a little bit of cayenne, and you will see a story that comes alive in a way that you may have not experienced," she said.