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Harlem Shakespeare Festival founder Debra Ann ByrdEXPAND
Harlem Shakespeare Festival founder Debra Ann Byrd
Lynn Trimble

Shakespeare's Othello — From Blackface to Black Woman

When eight actors take the stage for Othello in Scottsdale this month, it won’t look like your typical Shakespeare production. That’s because every cast member is a woman, and most are also artists of color.

Debra Ann Byrd, an Afro-Latino woman who founded the Harlem Shakespeare Festival in New York, is among them. She’ll perform the lead role, portraying a man who murders his wife in a jealous rage, after being tricked into believing she’s been unfaithful.

Byrd created an all-female Othello, turning the conventions of Shakespeare’s time upside down. When Othello premiered in 1604, men performed all the roles, even for female characters. A woman played Othello’s wife Desdemona in 1660, but that was a rare exception.

Women get more stage time today, of course. But the issue of equal representation in theater is still very much alive. And Byrd wants to help right that wrong.

She’s bringing a 90-minute adaptation of Othello to Taliesin West, working in partnership with Southwest Shakespeare Company. It's based in Mesa, a city with a significant Mormon presence, which doesn’t have a great reputation for being inclusive.

“At least I see them trying; the fact that they're bringing us in is their attempt at inclusivity,” Byrd says of the local theater company. “They’re partnering with us to bring some harmony and amity in theater.”

Turns out, there’s a long history of actors wearing blackface makeup to perform the lead role in Othello. And a pair of mid-20th century films did the same. Orson Welles wore blackface in a 1951 film version of Othello, and Laurence Olivier did the same in 1965, the same year Martin Luther King Jr. led a massive march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Debra Ann Byrd as the lead character in Harlem Shakespeare Festival's Othello.EXPAND
Debra Ann Byrd as the lead character in Harlem Shakespeare Festival's Othello.
Hubert Williams

Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s all-women, multiracial Othello premiered in 2013. The full-length production, which included 18 cast members, was directed by Lisa Wolpe, a California creative well-known for bending gender roles in Shakespeare’s works. Byrd collaborated with Wolpe to create the shorter version that premieres at Taliesin West in April.

The cast of eight includes Asian, black, Latino, and white women. Four are based in Arizona, and others in New York. Wei Guo, a doctoral candidate in music at ASU, will perform cello for the play.

There aren’t a lot of dark-skinned characters in Shakespeare’s works, and Othello is arguably the most sympathetic. Basically he gets a brain worm, after Iago hints that Desdemona has betrayed him. Othello starts to filter everything he sees through that lens – with tragic results.

“He had a broken-ass heart,” Byrd says of Othello. “He thought he’d found true love with a woman and it didn’t work out, though no fault of their own.”

Shakespeare fans often praise the Bard for capturing the folly of human foibles, as does Byrd. “He was good at human emotions and psychology,” she says.

Even so, Shakespeare has been called out for racism and sexism through the years. “I don’t know if Shakespeare was a racist,” Byrd says. “I know he took pause to write a story about a man of color.”

She’s seen more Othello productions than most, and easily rattles off a list of the most noteworthy. Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame was Othello in an otherwise all-black cast for a Washington, D.C., production in 1997. Last year, Golda Rosheuval played a lesbian Othello in an all-female production in Liverpool, England.

Nowadays, Byrd is working on a new production called Becoming Othello, which traces her own journey with Shakespeare’s work. And she’s working to create theater with diverse artists and audiences. “We’re trying to shift the planet any way we can,” she says. “That’s my mission, to bring people together through Shakespeare.”

Othello. Friday, April 19, through Sunday, April 28, at Taliesin West, 12621 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale. Tickets are $35. Visit swshakespeare.org or franklloydwright.org.

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