Southwest Shakespeare Names Founder of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival Debra Ann Byrd as Company’s New Artistic Director

The Award-Winning and Classically Trained Actress and Producer Brings a Diverse Background in Black Theatre, Gospel Theatre and Shakespeare to Southwest Shakespeare’s Leadership Team

As Southwest Shakespeare Company enters its 29th Season, the theatre company is pleased to name the Founder of Harlem Shakespeare Festival, Debra Ann Byrd, as the company’s new Artistic Director. A native of Spanish Harlem, New York, Byrd is an award-winning classically trained actress and producer and arts administrator.

“My mother is an African-American from East Harlem, New York City and my father, Puerto Rican from San Juan, Puerto Rico. My dual culture and my upbringing has influenced how I view the world and how I make theatre. I am an Afro-Latina who is fluent in Black theatre, gospel theatre, and classical theatre with a special emphasis on Shakespeare; all of which have helped to shape who I am as a producer, actor and director. Over the years I have become an international Shakespeare woman, acting for the past 32 years and producing Shakespeare and the classics for the last 20.”  I look forward to working on the Southwest Shakespeare team as we strive to make great theatre for Arizona, the Southwest and beyond,” said Byrd.

As the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Take Wing And Soar Productions and the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, Byrd guided the company’s growth from its birth as the passionate dream of one determined woman, into a viable support organization serving classical artists of color and theater arts groups throughout New York.

“This is a great moment for the Southwest Shakespeare Company. We have worked with Debra Ann as Artist-in-Residence for three years. She brings a skill set and advanced industry experience having founded and run the Harlem Shakespeare festival for 10 years. 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,” said Mary Way, Executive Director of Southwest Shakespeare Company.

Byrd starts the new position January 1st. An emerging playwright and scholar, the Harlem native most recently performed her new critically acclaimed one-woman theatrical drama, BECOMING OTHELLO: A Black Girl’s Journey, at Shakespeare & Company and Lincoln Center. Byrd’s solo show is depicted in New York City’s Spanish Harlem just a few blocks from the projects where she grew up. Through her life’s lessons and successes, Byrd hopes to bring her unique skills to Southwest Shakespeare Company.

“This is a really good space for me to grow and shift with the changing tides of American theatre and to see if we can bring additional communities into the Southwest Shakespeare Company,” said Byrd. “This is really the challenge for me – how do we all come together and create wonderful works? … Works that resonate across culture, language, race and class.”

Byrd has been named Writer-in-Residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Artist- in-Residence Fellow at the Folger Institute, an A’Lelia Bundles Community Scholar at Columbia University, a Virtual Artist-in-Residence at The Center at West Park, and Artist-in-Residence at Southwest Shakespeare Company.

She is also the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Sidney Berger Award presented to her by the Shakespeare Theatre Association for her work as a lover of Shakespeare, an accomplished actor, director, artistic director and producer, an innovator and charismatic leader of a Shakespearean theater throughout the world.

Her classical roles for the stage include Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, The Choragos in Antigone, Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, Volumnia in Coriolanus, Winter in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cleopatra in Antony & Cleopatra, Othello in The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice, Marc Antony in the all-female production of Julius Caesar and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest; the latter, for which she received Best Lead Actress and Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role nominations from AUDELCO and the NY Innovative Theatre Awards. Byrd’s career as an actor, producer, scholar, arts manager and business leader has been recognized with more than 20 awards and citations, including the NAACP Shirley Farmer Woman of Excellence Award, the LPTW (Lucille Lortel Award), and the Josephine Abady Award for Excellence in “Producing works that foster diversity.”

She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Acting from Marymount Manhattan College and completed advanced studies at Shakespeare & Company, The Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab and The Broadway League’s Commercial Theatre Institute.

Southwest Shakespeare Company will be hosting an upcoming mixer/event to introduce Ms. Byrd and the dynamic arts organization. Details on the event will be announced shortly.

For media inquiries please contact Jennifer Parks-Sturgeon at or call (480) 495-3806.

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Debra Ann Byrd at Southwest Shakespeare Company

Debra Ann Byrd has a long history on Southwest Shakespeare Company’s stages.  Here is a look back at some of the work she has developed in Arizona as Southwest Shakespeare Artist in Residence and work she brought to the valley as Artistic Director of Harlem Shakespeare Festival.