The development of any new theatrical production is a collaborative process between actors, the director and the playwright. Darius Omar Williams’ latest professional project found him onstage in Minnesota last November helping to develop a new play.
Williams, assistant professor of theatre and Africana studies, was part of a workshop production of Jezebel’s Lipstick at the Pillsbury House and Theatre in Minneapolis. Jezebel’s Lipstick is the story of an evangelistic fall from grace of a Reverend and his wife and probes the redemptive value of Christian faith. Staging the the two-person show with just two days for rehearsals, the production brought Williams together with friend and fellow playwright Renita Martin and his input helped shape the mainstage production.
“She trusted my director’s eye as well as my choices as a trained actor. In the process of working through with some of her edits, she was open to my suggestions in terms of refining some of the writing and cuts,” says Williams.
The mainstage production was part of Pillsbury’s Late Night series, which provides an opportunity for Minnesota and New York-based artists to present their experimental work, works in progress, and finished plays. As a playwright, poet, director and actor, Williams says these kinds of productions support and strengthen his work as a director.
“It’s very important to be open—to allow actors to take risks, to make their own choices on stage. It’s a collaborative effort and more importantly it’s about trust. Knowing that everything that needs to manifest will manifest, which is essential. In addition to the technical aspect of my craft, I work quite organically and it’s an organic experience while discovering new dimensions to a character in the moment and also trusting that during that creative imagination those moments that need to happen will happen as you work through the process, as opposed to mapping out everything that is going to happen on stage. You discover as you go. You trust in your instinct. You trust in spontaneity knowing that the possibilities are limitless, and of course you refine as you go.”
For Williams, whose research focuses on indigenous African Ritual performance traditions and the intersection of Yoruba and Mississippi Delta Blues tradition, working on projects like Jezebel’s Lipstick brings new material and perspectives to the classroom. Martin’s script presents a symbolic reevaluation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent political principals. It also explores and challenges the Westernized foundation of what constitutes the black church, particularly in the cultural and spiritual imagination of colonialized African American identity and such material from emerging playwrights presents new opportunities for discussion in the classroom. At Lehigh, Williams teaches Contemporary African American Theatre, bringing to the classroom the works of young playwrights such as award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is best known for his acclaimed trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. Martin’s play was also produced at Lehigh as part of the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee year-round programming efforts. Williams notes that the work he does professionally provides new elements to his teaching, whether discussing these new plays in class or working with young artists.
“It’s invigorating for me to continue my work as a professional actor outside the university. It’s very important to bring that practical experience to the classroom, to always contextualize any historical and/or theoretical material we discuss in class with practical experience. It enhances any classroom discussion for me to provide professional context while also highlighting personal experience as an artist.”