African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) founder and director Don Williams wore a proud smile on Feb. 20 as one of his students, August Stevens, softly strummed her guitar singing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” written by Sam Cook in 1964 in support of the civil rights movement. Award winning theater director Woodie King Jr., who served as a role model in Black theater to Williams, praised him for 30 years of work cultivating an artistic outlet for Black voices in theater.

More than 200 people from across the nation tuned-in to a livestream last Saturday night for moments like these as part of the African American Theater Arts Troupe’s (AATAT) 30th anniversary gala.  

Cameron Rivers, a UC Santa Cruz fourth year and chair of the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CADrc) along with actor and producer Niketa Calame-Harris (Oakes, ‘02), who voiced Young Nala in the 1994 film The Lion King, facilitated the event. Rivers and Calame-Harris introduced special guest speakers and performers including award-winning theater director Woodie King Jr. and fourth-year assistant producer for CADrc August Stevens to honor the accomplishments of AATAT and its founder Don Williams. 

Woodie King Jr.: From Baldwin Springs, Alabama, King attended Leman College in New York then went on to earn his MFA from Brooklyn College. In 1970, King founded the New Federal Theatre and the National Black Touring Circuit in New York City and began his current career as a producing director. King has received many different awards and acknowledgements for his work, including the 1988 NAACP Image Award, the 1993 Audelco Awards for Best Director and Best Play and an Obie award for Sustained Achievement. 

After making special shoutouts to friends and family that supported him in upholding AATAT, Williams said the organization’s growth in the last 30 years is connected to its determination to uplift people of all backgrounds. 

“Our Black voices are important,” Williams said. “We survived because of the good people in this world, and they come in every creed, every shade, and every color. I’m thankful to all the folks who have been watching this program tonight. It makes a big difference to have you here witnessing the 30 years of service that we’ve been providing to this greater community.”

Within the first hour of the gala, Santa Cruz’s U.S. congressman Jimmy Panetta announced the addition of AATAT’s accomplishments to the congressional record. This means that the U.S. Congress recognizes the organization’s contribution to the community through its performances, scholarships and outreach programs as a part of American history. 

August Stevens said her favorite moments in the evening was watching Williams receive well deserved recognition for his hard work.  

“My biggest hope is that [the community] saw the people that are involved with AATAT…and they see the impact AATAT has and they continue and actually start to provide the resources that we need,” said Stevens after the event. “The amount of press [AATAT] has been getting will be fuel for them to recognize us and give us the institutional power and solidification that we wanted.”

Stevens has been a part of AATAT for almost four years, and working alongside Williams, other campus organizations, and AATAT alum in order to make this event possible.  

Don Williams and AATAT actors on stage.
AATAT rehearsal from 2012. Photo by Prescott Watson from the CHP archives.

The gala presented a documentary on CADrc titled “Uplift Others,” created this winter by UCSC alum Scott Leiserson, which features alum, current students, and Williams. The short film captured what Williams has done for the Santa Cruz community, and how important his preservation of Black theater on campus was for Black students at UCSC.  

After presenting the promo video, Woodie King Jr., an award winning director, reiterated to Williams how important his work has been and how William’s hard work has brought himself and his students closer to the theater.

“I mean, that’s what it’s about man, it’s the love of the arts. It’s the love of young Black people who you’re pulling up with you,” King said. “It doesn’t matter that they are Black, as long as they’re young, energetic, and really want to do it…I’m so glad that the African American theatre group is alive and doing it in Santa Cruz.”

King discussed his journey entering the realm of Black theater during the 50’s and 60’s in Detroit and New York. He emphasized to Williams the importance of reading and educating oneself in order to educate others through the theater.

King showed his appreciation and admiration for William’s hard work in building a theater and community at UCSC and enlightening students about the importance of theater.

“I learned from the great Langston Hughes— If you go somewhere, pull somebody along with you,” King said. “And that’s what you were doing, if you are going to teach some young people that you are teaching and working with and instilling in them the beauty of theater, the beauty of art. The beauty of this piece of theater by August Wilson…The beauty of these kinds of things. That’s what propelled me, it’s the same thing that I see in you.”

The recording of the ” AATAT 30th Anniversary Gala can be viewed here.