Guest Reviewer Amy Pierce
Amy Pierce is a lifelong fan of the theater, an actor, a storyteller, and a Black woman, who hopes to encourage more people of color to embrace art in all its forms (but especially live theater).
Deborah Ann Byrd has great stage presence and has accomplished quite a lot as an actor and as a woman from severely disadvantaged beginnings. One can feel that from the moment she takes stage with a powerful singing voice, owning the stage. She is a vastly talented actor with a story that should be rich and compelling. Her struggles to find and express her talent and love for acting, particularly of acting Shakespeare is certainly worthy of being heard.
In her solo show now presenting at Seattle Shakespeare Company, Becoming Othello, A Black Girl's Journey, Byrd tells the story of those struggles and her unlikely journey to becoming a Shakespearean actor and to founding the Harlem Shakespeare Festival in 2013, a festival that continues today to provide professional opportunities to Black and underrepresented actors to perform any classical roles they might like.
She introduces that part of her story by describing years of being a working actor, yet when she expresses a love of Shakespeare, she’s told to maybe stick to August Wilson plays. It’s an enraging, yet all too common an occurrence.
And yet, in a narrative that tells us more than shows us, Byrd's story becomes more of a dry recitation of facts, her own story interspersed with songs and facts about Black history, than a real, living storytelling experience. Even when sharing some truly horrific experiences, including the life-threatening illness of her child, and teenage episodes of sexual assault, Byrd's story failed to truly move this reviewer in the way I’d hoped. Though describing and acting out small portions of these terrible traumas, in choosing not to burden the audience with much detail, Byrd’s pain fails to invoke compassion and connection, and ultimately does not engender much genuine emotion.
The uneven evening creates a net effect is out of focus and jumbled, leaving confusion as to what just happened, when, and most importantly why we should care about it. She details finding out about an acting degree, then suddenly has already been in and through the program after three years gone, in a split second. She seems to raise her hand and create Harlem Shakespeare Festival without any backstory as to how she managed to pull the community together and what it took to obtain funding for what was likely a very unusual artistic endeavor, at that point.
It's really a shame that this story isn't better presented. Clearly a lot of work has gone into its development. Byrd tells us what she's accomplished, but it feels self-protective of her own pain, instead of taking the real risk of showing us how her journey felt. This reviewer was often left confused as to the timeline of events: What else was happening when her daughter was ill and possibly dying? Did she have an established acting career before attending college? Where and when did she build the relationships that led to her being able to build a Shakespeare festival in New York? I would love to see this story retold. There's something definitely there, but this production didn't deliver enough of it.