Acting Shakespeare takes people out of themselves and leads to a realm where anything seems possible. Thanks to the plays, there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio’s — or anyone else’s — philosophy. For an exemplary instance of this miraculous transformation, look no further than Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, the one-woman show by Debra Ann Byrd that will be presented on Saturday, October 17, over Zoom by UCSB Theater/Dance as part of its new Naked Shakes Solo Festival. Byrd belongs to an elite corps of Shakespeareans who have spent the last several decades exploring the impact nontraditional casting can have on productions, and through them, on audiences.
As the founder and artistic director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, Byrd knew what could happen when the plays find their way into new contexts, but it wasn’t until a fateful conversation with L.A.-based Shakespearean Lisa Wolpe that she considered taking on the role of Othello. With Wolpe as her Iago, Byrd began a journey that’s still in progress and that led her from the acclaimed original production of Othello in which she starred to Stratford-on-Avon, where she was a writer-in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and then to the Folger Institute in Washington, D.C., where her original archival research uncovered evidence of another woman who played Othello in 19th-century America.
Byrd’s 90-minute, five-act, one-woman show combines autobiographical reflections with material not only from Shakespeare, but also from the panoply of African-American voices that served as spiritual guides on her path toward gender-flipping on the classical stage. She sings, she dances, and she delivers the words that brought her to a new understanding not only of Shakespeare but of her own place in the world, and of the infinite opportunity theater offers for self-discovery. —Charles Donelan
411 | Becoming Othello will be streamed on Saturday, October 17, at 6 p.m. Register to watch at bit.ly/302SdXU.