Debra Ann Byrd didn’t come to Phoenix to be reborn.
However, that’s what happened when she joined the Mesa-based Southwest Shakespeare Company as its artistic director.
“I’m a Christian girl, a Bible girl and I was living in the Valley with the mountains surrounding me,” Byrd says.
“I was feeling so much closer to God, and I found myself being refreshed and rejuvenated and more alive. I lost 60 pounds. The environment was very good to me. It causes me to relax, to calm down, to breathe deeper and to smile more from the inside.”
Byrd brings a wealth of Shakespeare experience to the Valley. The founder of Harlem Shakespeare Festival and Take Wing and Soar Productions, Byrd is well known in the classical world. Last year, the Shakespeare Theatre Association honored her with the prestigious Sidney Berger Award thanks to her Shakespearean work.
“I fell in love with Shakespeare because I saw a troupe of Black actors performing it at Harlem,” Byrd says. “Their performances were amazing and magical, beautiful. I said to myself, ‘Wow.’ I had been looking for a challenge in my theatrical career and when I saw them — that was the challenge I was looking for.”
She studied classical theater at a conservatory. Upon graduation, she was told she’d only find success with modern Black playwrights.
Unsatisfied with this, she founded the Harlem Shakespeare Festival. Coming up on its 20-year anniversary, the festival will celebrate with her, despite her current position.
“We’ll do it around summer, and I’ll have the opportunity to go there,” Byrd says.
“You can’t do summer in Arizona, so it kind of works out. My team in Harlem will do as much as they can, and I’ll do as much as I can and, together, we’ll make a beautiful 20th anniversary.”
Byrd’s work is well known. She produced an all-female version of “Othello” and recently staged “Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey” at the Lincoln Center. She is a writer-in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, artist-in-residence fellow at the Folger Institute and an A’Lelia Bundles Community Scholar at Columbia University.
Although she has worked primarily in New York, she is a perfect fit for Arizona in many ways.
“My mother is an African American from New York,” Byrd says.
“My father is from Puerto Rico. My dual culture has influenced how I view the world and how I make theater. I am an Afro-Latina who is fluent in Black theater, gospel theater and classical theater with a special emphasis on Shakespeare, all of which has helped shape who I am as a producer, actor and director.
“Over the years I have become a Shakespeare woman, producing Shakespeare and the classics for 20 years and I’ve spent the last 32 years as an actor. I look forward to working with the Southwest Shakespeare team as we strive to make great theater for Arizona and the Southwest.”
The position came about at an apt time as she felt she needed a change.
“I needed to grow,” Byrd says. “I needed to see for myself if I could do this career challenge.”
Southwest Shakespeare and Byrd were already familiar with each other. She performed here in 2019 and was an artist in residence for three years.
“I thought that they were a great organization,” Byrd says. “I thought that their work ethic was great, their shows were great and what I was seeing was all good.”
She was impressed with Mary Way, the executive director.
“She is kind, loving, giving and has a beautiful heart and a beautiful spirit,” Byrd says. “It was not really difficult to say let me go that way.”
Th feeling is mutual.
“She brings a skill set and advanced industry experience having founded and run the Harlem Shakespeare Festival,” Way says.
“She is critically acclaimed and was the Phoenix Actress of the Year in 2019 for her role as Othello. She is thoroughly decorated and it’s an attribute to our education mission to have an artist share both the Latin and African American experience with our community.”
Byrd arrived in January, in the middle of the season assembled by Way. Since then, she has learned about the organization and the Valley.
Byrd is organizing the next season and promises at least three Shakespearean plays, maybe even five. Southwest Shakespeare Company wraps its season with “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles” on May 8 at Taliesin West.
“I think the best way to seduce someone to Shakespeare is to perform it for them and show them your heart and your soul,” Byrd says.
“When you perform Shakespeare and share your heart and soul, people cannot help but to be seduced if you honestly share.”
“Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles”
WHEN: Various times through May 8
WHERE: Taliesin West, 12345 N. Taliesin West, Scottsdale
COST: Tickets start at $35