Without the talents and efforts of Don Williams, an entire generation of artists may never have had the opportunity to discover and voice their talents. Starting from a young age, Williams’ love of theater sparked a career in creating inclusive and uplifting spaces for Black voices inside and outside of the UC Santa Cruz community.
Before The Curtain Opened
When Williams’ neighborhood lost power one night in the midst of a Michigan lightning storm, he and the other children in his family had to get creative to find entertainment. Without TV or electricity, he and his siblings performed dance routines and plays for their family members until the storm passed.
This was when he fell in love with performing.
For his junior high talent show, Williams returned to the stage with his family members and paid homage to Michael Jackson in a dance spectacular he directed and choreographed. After being awarded the best performance of the night, Williams continued to pursue theater in high school.
Surrounded by upperclassmen, Williams fell in love with the stage and the process of putting on a show, performing in his high school production of “West Side Story.”
“I liked to be on stage and the teamwork of putting on a story,” Williams said, reflecting on his early years in the theater. “It’s not just you, but it’s a whole team working together.”
While learning about his passion for theater arts, Williams found flaws in the industry as one of the only freshmen and people of color in the cast.
Building a Legacy: Embracing Black Theater
When Williams was attending Michigan State University (MSU) to obtain an undergraduate degree in theater, he found that the department rarely put on plays that dealt with the Black experience. MSU was putting on plays like “Winnie the Pooh,” “Cinderella,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — all featuring a predominantly white cast.
By his second year, he formed the first Black theater arts troupe at MSU called The Last-Minute Hookup. The troupe offered more casting opportunities to students of color and put on productions that shed light on Black history.
“Theater of color, especially Black theater, has always been passed over by major institutions throughout my life,” Williams said. “So I started changing things, really standing up and really fighting for the importance of theater being presented and produced and sold throughout our communities.”
While at the University of Southern California working on his Master in Fine Arts, Williams was scouted by UC Santa Cruz to work for their theater arts department.
Williams started teaching at UCSC in 1989, and his students quickly pointed out that the theater arts department was not putting on shows around the Black experience. Although he and his family had just moved to Santa Cruz and were still getting situated, Williams jumped at the opportunity to bring more representation to the theater department.
Williams founded African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) during his second year at UCSC, the only Black theater arts troupe in the entire UC system at the time.
The performances put on by AATAT present students with an opportunity to see other performers in professional theater and learn stories about their own backgrounds.
While students and Williams received no compensation or credit from the university, they continued to work, holding rehearsals in lounges, dorms, or wherever they could find. With no budget, AATAT searched campus for items that could work for their props, costumes, lighting, and stage.
“On my own time and my own dime, we produced our first show called ‘Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,’” Williams said. “We had a variety of students that were spread out across the campus, and it was the first time they really engaged and met each other, which is kind of sad too, as far as trying to build community. It served as a major piece of bringing folks together.”
“Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” was a runner up for the 1969 Pulitzer Prize that follows a recently widowed man as he struggles to care for his children, while seeing the ghost of his recently deceased wife.
Throughout the last 30 years, Williams has been a role model and supporter of his students, meanwhile managing to raise over $100,000 in student scholarships.
Williams aided artists like Niketa Calame-Harris (Oakes ‘02), who played Young Nala in “The Lion King” (1994), and educator Antonio Glass (Rachel Carson ‘10) in building their careers.
“He’s a person I saw in myself who I wanted to be in terms of creation,” Glass said. “He guided me to create my best self…Mr. Williams helped me become the best CEO of myself in terms of being able to share how I feel.”
Before meeting Williams, Glass was not fully comfortable embracing his passion for theater. He felt self-conscious as a Black man with a love for acting and dancing. Years later, he works at the UCSC Cultural Arts and Diversity (CAD) Resource Center and is a mentor for aspiring student actors, like Williams once was for him.
Williams helped students like Glass step out of their comfort zones by having them try other aspects of theater besides acting, like stage managing or directing. By broadening student actors’ theatrical horizons, Williams believes students can be more vulnerable and learn to fully accept themselves.
Glass especially felt like he came out of his shell when Williams introduced him to the outreach programs. Williams would have his students perform at high schools in Los Angeles and the Greater Bay Area, providing high schoolers from marginalized communities insights and information about applications and enrollment, academics, college life and the UC system in general.
“I love acting on campus, but to be around high school students who had never been to Santa Cruz who were from Monterey was mind blowing,” Glass said. “I want them to be involved in programs like these because these are great outlets for kids that look like me.”
After going out to perform for under resourced schools, Glass realized he wanted to do more to give back to the community, as he felt that he was not doing enough. After graduating from UCSC, Glass went on to get his MFA in acting at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and taught an undergraduate acting class there before returning to UCSC.
Glass says the students he taught at the University of Missouri–Kansas City still reach out to him for audition advice. He credits the positive impact he has on others to Williams for helping him step out of his comfort zone as an undergraduate at UCSC.
“It’s to bring more reputation and to also give a historical perspective of who we are and how we have contributed across the board to the building of America. It serves as a reference of giving identity and understanding of African Americans, themselves.”Don Williams
August Stevens, assistant producer of CAD and UCSC, looks at Williams as the lifeline of AATAT and Rainbow Theatre, and believes the organizations have a close-knit relationship because of him.
“He’s very committed and very family oriented,” Stevens said. “He doesn’t want it to feel like you’re in an office, he wants it to be as comfortable as possible so that we can create the art that we want.”
While preparing for a play and upcoming workshop, Williams works to maintain these connections with his former students, whether that means checking in or inviting them to work with his students. No matter how much time has passed since their graduation, if a student was ever part of the troupe, Williams considers them to be a part of his family.
Saving AATAT and Rainbow Theatre
Toward the end of spring 2005, Williams was issued a letter from the university notifying him of his proposed termination by the end of the year.
“It was very shocking for me to hear and to get this letter with no warning of any kind,” Williams said. “No counsel of ‘we have something that we’re particularly looking at,’ after working there for 15 years.”
After over a decade of putting on successful productions and creating scholarships, the university planned on firing Williams due to employee budget cuts in the theater department. Shortly after Williams heard about his layoff, word that Williams would no longer be teaching on campus spread rapidly.
“Everything about the theater department makes me feel uncomfortable,” Maria Olivio told City on a Hill Press in June 2005. “The only teachers that care about us, their jobs are always in jeopardy. Don [Williams] and Alma [Martinez — a Mexican professor whose job was also under review] are the only two people that I connected with here. It scares me that they may not be here anymore.”
Hundreds of students were upset by the news and immediately acted to keep AATAT, Rainbow Theatre, and Williams at UCSC. Within a couple days, Williams’ students marched to the theater arts department and campaigned for his stay, collecting roughly 2,000 signatures on a petition for his job security.
“It blew me away, it really humbled me so much, I literally was in tears,” Williams said. “It felt like I was seeing my funeral, but I didn’t die. I didn’t realize, and I’m full right now just thinking about it, that they felt and cared that much about what I was doing for them.”
AATAT’s 30th Anniversary
Over the last three decades, Williams has directed nearly 50 plays for AATAT and is currently working on “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls.” To honor the last 30 years, AATAT will host “Honoring Our Roots, Uplifting Black Voices,” a web celebration with national Black theater pioneers, like Woodie King, Jr., writers, alumni and representatives of the Black Theater Network on Feb. 20.
At this virtual celebration, admission is free of charge to the general public. RSVP here by Feb. 17.