We look to the past to shape our future. Who are you? Where are you going from here?

Hello, I am Debra Ann Byrd, a mixed-raced, fifth generation, Afro-Latina mother of two from Spanish Harlem. My life has been steeped in and influenced by many cultures, particularly and mostly those of the African-American and Puerto Rican traditions. I am an actor, producer, writer, scholar, and director who loves music, poetry, word-work, history, acting, singing, and dancing late into the night at my favorite neighborhood club. I currently serve as the Founding Artistic Director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival. I’ve recently written a one-woman theatrical drama titled, BECOMING OTHELLO: A Black Girl’s Journey, where I explore my experiences with Shakespeare and the classics, race, gender, and various themes of love and/or the lack thereof.  I’m scheduled to tour my new play around the nation and the world, which means I’m headed on the journey of my lifetime. 

What most excites you about being a part of TAM’s (R)evolutionary Redux Season?

I am most excited about being a part of Theater at Monmouth’s (R)evolutionary Redux Season because I get to take a deep dive into the lives of the real-life characters of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Antony, who could have very well been my mentors. I am an Agitator in my own right, having founded a theatre production company, created to serve classically trained artists of color as well as, foster diversity in classical theatre. So being able to direct TAM’s production of The Agitators, I get an opportunity to guide actors and share with others my take on what it means to disturb the air and cause agitation for purposes of making the world a better, fairer place for all. All races, all religions, all nationalities, all genders. TAM’s (R)evolutionary Redux season helps me to be able to continue my life’s work and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

We’re all about making old things new and new things classic. Why are you drawn to Classic Theatre? How do you shake it up?

I too am all about making old things new and new things classic. I am drawn to Classic Theatre first because I personally like, and am turned on by, things old and foreign (foreign for me translates to: from a different culture or understanding). I like learning about people, who they are and why they do what they do. In my role as producer, I get to take traditional classic plays and make them new in my community by casting them with mixed-race casts or all-black casts or even place them in different cultural locations. For example, I could produce Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and rename it, CORIOLANUS: The African Warrior or take Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and set it in 1920’s Harlem with an all-black cast.  These plays then become new in my community and the folks get to see themselves represented on stage. I then shake it up by marketing them across the nation and as far around the globe as I can reach, and it seems to be working. These plays have become new classics. Not just in my town, but they also have appeal across the nation.

From what sources do you draw your inspiration?

I draw inspiration from people of action, from uplifting music and poetry, from the teachings of the bible and from gospel music. I am inspired by nature’s beauty and by folks who work to bring joy and gladness into the lives of others.

You can have dinner with any three influential people. Who are your dream guests, why them, and what is the topic of conversation?

If I could have dinner with three influential people, my dream guests would be Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Henrietta Vinton Davis. I’d chose them because they were all very influential people who were completely passionate about the life to which they had been called. They answered the selfless call to be the spokesperson for the lives of many. They were all focused, gifted and dedicated to the uplift of their race, while actively working to help us all understand that we are more alike than we are different. I want to sit with them, break bread with them, thank them for their work, and learn from them what it takes to stand tall, in the face of such push back, and still be the kind, brave, unselfish, powerful speakers and leaders that they were. This night for me would be one of physical, mental, and spiritual nutrition. My hope would be to inspire them the same way that they have inspired me.

What recent revolutionary acts are you most proud of?

The most recent revolutionary act that I am most proud of is leading my team and completing Theatre Season 18 of my professional theatre company, which was founded to encourage change in American Classical Theatre. Proud because I can clearly see what my work has done to advance the idea of inclusion and to promote unity and understanding in the arts.

What’s your super power?

My superpower is my ability to LOVE people pass their mess. And to love myself pass mine.