This April, Harlem makes its way to Scottsdale.
As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, Southwest Shakespeare Company will host the Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s all-female, multi-racial production of “Othello: The Moore of Venice” April 19-28 at Taliesin West.
“It has been a rewarding and liberating anniversary season,” said Southwest Shakespeare Executive Director Mary Way. “We are making new friends and have an energy and purpose that makes us feel like fresh upstarts. The joy is palpable.”
Debra Ann Byrd founded the Harlem Shakespeare Festival in 2009, but this will be the first time her production of “Othello” will travel to the Southwest.
It’s also the first time since 2015 the production has taken the stage.
“We performed [the stage reading] to a sold-out house in Harlem, and our audiences really loved it and that’s what made us know we really needed to move it to main stage. That’s how I got inspired,” Byrd said.
In short, “Othello” tells the story of a general, Othello, whose life and marriage are ruined by a deceitful and jealous soldier, Iago.
“It is the story of jealousy and the destructive power of a lie,” Way said. “It is also the story of the tender power of love.”
Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Othello” is trimmed down from 215 minutes to 90 minutes. Byrd also trimmed the cast from 18 to eight.
“It will be exciting and fast moving, and we’re really looking forward to it,” Byrd said.
Byrd calls this partnership with Southwest Shakespeare a “true collaboration.”
The cast consists of four classically trained actresses from the East Coast and four women from Southwest Shakespeare.
Byrd plays Othello and New York-based actress Ella Loudon plays Iago.
The rest of the cast includes Natalie Andrews, Amy Driesler, Troi Hall, Ryan L. Jenkins, Megan Lindsay and Kellyn Masters.
An all-female cast is far from common for a play like “Othello.”
“When Queen Elizabeth sat on the throne, rules of engagement for women were very different,” Way said. “Women were not allowed to act on the stage.”
Way added, “For this play, Harlem Shakespeare has flipped the unisex casting concepts to provide place for expertly trained female classical actors to stretch themselves and take on some of the most impactful roles ever written.”
The cast is also multi-racial, an intentional move on Byrd’s part as she hopes the audience will walk away from the play understanding that a multiracial casting doesn’t inhibit the story; it enhances it.
“When you look on stage and you see black, Hispanic, Asian and white folks all mixed up together telling a story that is hundreds of years old and it works, I need people to understand that, in their lives, it can work, too, if you come together and just begin to see each other as one,” Byrd said.
The creative staff is also comprised strictly of women from Arizona and New York. The staff includes Fight Director Rachelle Hart, Costume Designer Gail Cooper-Hecht and Stage Manager Hannah Stewart.
“One of the things we’re trying to do with this project is to show the Shakespeare Theater Association how collaboration can happen and how a couple of companies can have credit at the same time and share resources and make theater together,” Byrd said.
What attracted Way to this partnership with Harlem Shakespeare was hearing Byrd’s story at a theater convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Growing up in Harlem, Byrd connected to Shakespeare through the King James Bible.
“I realized that the thing that caught my attention was the language and the rhythm and the familiarity with the language,” she said. “The word sounded a lot like words I had heard in the King James Bible and the rhythms of it sounded to me like preacher rhythms.”
“I was fascinated with the authentic curiosity that drove [Byrd] to start a theater company devoted to the classics in Harlem,” Way said.
Byrd, who is on the Board of the Shakespeare Theater Association and a fellow at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., and Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, founded Take Wing and Soar Productions in 1999.
Harlem Shakespeare Festival is a part of Take Wing and Soar Productions.
Byrd noticed a lack of opportunities for classically trained actors of color – including her.
“So what I did is I said, ‘OK, if this is America and if it’s the truth that, indeed, artists of color are going to have problems getting roles in the classics, then someone needs to fix that,” Byrd said.
Byrd has produced nearly 20 theater productions, including “Hamlet,” “King Lear” and “Othello.”
Through Harlem Shakespeare Festival, actors of all backgrounds, races and genders have the opportunity to take on roles for which they might not otherwise be considered.
“For several of our actors, they’ve had opportunities to build a resume. Now they have experience because we created the thing for them to be able to have those experiences,” Byrd said, adding:
“Watching them go and grow and then watching my peers call and ask for leads in their shows, it’s something to celebrate,” she said.
According to a January 2018 study published by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, diversity is slowly increasing onstage on Broadway.
The study showed that, during the 2015-16 season, 35 percent of all roles went to minority actors, an increase of 5 percent from the previous season.
Since Byrd founded Take Wing and Soar Productions and Harlem Shakespeare Festival and became a member of the Shakespeare Theater Association, she has seen an increase in diversity in theater, Broadway and film.
“Although the numbers are low, I do see that they’re better than they were even 20 years ago,” she said.
Byrd feels encouraged and hopeful the numbers will continue to rise.
“All we have to do with is keep pushing, just keep showing up, keep making sure that you get opportunities to sit at the table,” she said. “I feel like it’s my job to make sure that the folks around me are aware what’s happening because sometimes we’re not even aware.”
Southwest Shakespeare’s season at Taliesin West is dubbed – by Taliesin CEO Stuart Graff – “The Standing O Series.”
Southwest Shakespeare will kick off the 2019-20 season with “Ladies in Waiting: The Judgment of Henry VIII.” For the full season schedule, visit swshakespeare.org.
If you go
Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s
When: April 19-28
Where: Taliesin West, 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.