Jacqueline Lawton: Give us a little background on where you’re from originally, where you grew up, and how you ended up where you are now…
Yolanda Williams: I am a Mississippi girl…born and raised in Jackson, the state’s capitol. I guess you can say I am a true southern belle. I love Mississippi and couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else. It has made me into not only the person I am today, but also the artist. I grew up in a traditional southern African American family. One difference from the ideal Southern upbringing was my education. I received a Catholic education from elementary to high school and attended a small Catholic university in Dallas, TX where I majored in Drama.
Instead of feeling restrictions and dogma being immersed throughout my life the experience and education I saw it as a challenge and opened avenues in exploring many forms of life and theater was a wonderful outlet. Mississippi has a less than 5% Catholic presence and being a minority within a minority contributed to my zest to take risks and encompass various perspectives in my craft.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
YW: I feel like I have always been drawn to theatre. Performing has always been a part of my life since I can remember. One of my earliest memories was watching an episode of the Cosby Show. It was the episode where the Grandfather character and his friends came over to the family house and they recited a piece from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. I was captivated by the language and the melodic voice and tone of the characters and wanted to hear more. I remember turning to my mom and telling her I wanted to hear more of that story. Not truly understanding the story as a whole at such a young age but, knowing that the performance made me stop and feel something inside made me know that this was something I wanted to pursue and learn as much as I could. From that point on Shakespeare works became my staple in my bedtime stories.
For me there was never a choice. It was a calling. I could not see myself doing anything else. There was not a specific moment in my life when I decided that this would be what I would make a career out of, it was apart of my life that would always remain. As I continued my educational endeavors, I realized that it was something I could develop into a career. It is such a major part of my life that it would be incomplete without it. For me it has become a necessary limb.
JL: What is unique about being an artist where you live?
YW: It’s Mississippi, the heart of Dixie land. The state is ruled by conservative values, love of family, and God. One thing about being in the South is we are very slow in accepting change. As an artist, this presents several challenges. It can be difficult, particularly if you’re like me, and enjoy dabbling in experimental theatre avenues. You’re facing years of social, racial, religious and cultural limitations all while adapting to an audience that enjoys few changes to their expected theatre experience. But, through these challenges an artists can stretch their creative muscles. I find these challenges as motivation and often inspirational. The history and the values are indicative to the South are shown within its people and flows into the theatre community. The embrace from your hometown is a warm feeling. They are there to support you through the good and bad. Though the Theatre community is small, it’s heart and passions are strong. The South is unique and their support is in the arts is small but the pockets of supporters are devoted. Once they truly embrace you and your talents.
JL: You are a Freelance Director and Professor of Theater. How do you balance your professional theatre career with your academic responsibilities?
YW: Actually, working in a university gives me the flexibility to take on freelance directing work. My classes are set for the semester and I have the ability to work around my weekly schedule. Planning and sticking to my schedule is the difficult part. I feel like both enhance each other. I take from one and bring to the other and vice versa. Having an academia career gives me the security I need to take on the professional freelance work that might not be financially feasible but the quality and the work is worth wild. It allows me to seek out work that is forward thinking, competitive, thought- provoking, challenging, and sometimes risk-taking. Working at a university also gives me the opportunity to work with the new artist looking to enter into the field. I am able to help mold our great new artists that are finding their niche in the theatre world. It makes me excited to be able to work with bright minds and creative individuals and bring the work that I do in the professional world to the academic world.
JL: What was the first show you directed and what did you learn from that experience that remains with you today?
YW: The first show I directed was Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams at the University of Dallas. There are a few things that remain with me from that experience and every time I direct a show. One is, you cannot predict an audience reaction to your production. I was not expecting the audience to be so caught up in the drama of my production of Suddenly Last Summer that they could not even respond with applause at the end. They were frozen in the last moment of the play while we had curtain call. I did not predict that at all. At first I thought they did not like it. I knew the themes were pushing the boundaries of this small catholic university and the audience might not appreciate it. But I was wrong. I learned I had to give my audience time to adjust to what they viewed and come to terms with what they just watched. The responsibility and expectations of taking them on an emotional journey is something I had to comprehend and accept opening night. It is important to know that your audience goes on that journey with the characters of the play. You cannot just all of a sudden bring them out of a moment.
Another thing I learned is how important it is for the director to have a clear concept going into a production and be able to adapt quickly. A concept might change and morph into something bigger or smaller and more than likely something better. Adaptation is key to creativity.
JL: Who nominated you to be a Young Leaders of Color Award Recipient?
YW: Francine Reynolds. She’s the Artistic Director of New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi.
JL: What excited you most about taking part in the conference and the program?
YW: I was excited about meeting and interacting with other artists. Just being around colleagues who understand the challenges and passion I feel about theatre was motivation enough for me. The appreciation and love I have for the field as well as some of the disappointments I might share. I hoped to find encouragement and a place where I could share my successes as well as my setbacks and find ways I can enhance the arts in my community and around my state.
I wanted to hear about TCG and the cutting edge theatre taking place throughout the nation and the world. I wanted to know what other artist, theaters and leaders of theaters and innovators where doing in the field and hear about the successes and challenges they were facing in the field. I was really interested in the breakout sessions and meeting many individual whose professional careers that I have followed for a while. I was hoping to hear words of wisdom and be inspired. I have to say, I was not disappointed!
JL: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the conference?
YW: Diversity is not just an issue in the South, apparently it is a problem throughout the nation in theatre. It might be more prevalent in the South but, it is still something that needs to be tackled. One of the best ways to tackle diversity is by being present in the community, producing more work in different theaters that reach a broader audience. Making myself known in the arts in my community and letting them know that I am here, I am a willing to work with them and helping to figure out ways to diversify their theatre is an action I can take to diversify theatre in my area. By making myself available it can only help the arts in my community.
JL: What are some of the challenges you have faced as an artist of color? What have you learned from these experiences?
YW: One of the biggest challenges of being an artist of color, is being hired to direct. I love directing plays that represent people of color. However being regulated to directing only plays of color places a limit on exploring my talent and hinders my reach of communicating to various audiences and productions. I am a director that is confident in my capabilities, and as a director I can direct anything. When theaters in the South only offer one show of color in the season I am therefore in competition with all the other talented directors of color. We are competing not for our talents of directing a show in Mississippi but directing the only show of color produced in the few major theatre houses in the state.
This has given me a rare opportunity to have an open discussion with artistic directors and sometimes board members in adding more diversity in their season. More diversity means more opportunities throughout the season and more opportunities not just for directors of color but also for actors of color.
By voicing these opinions I truly believe this does not have to limit what they already do in their season, only open it up to opportunities that could be beneficial to the audience, the artists, and the entire theatre community in the long run.
JL: What advice do you have for other young artists of color in the theatre?
YW: Be strong and stay committed. This is not an easy road but it is well worth it. Being in the arts takes a passion and a drive and if you are lucky to have it, it will take you to some great places. You have to be able to adapt to different situations. My strongest gift that has helped me is my spirituality.
JL: What’s up next for you and where can keep up with your amazing work?
YW: I have recently started working with local musical artists. I am producing, directing and writing their shows for various venues. Musicians and theater artists have so much in common, this union seems has become a truly harmonious experience. Theatre is my life and I find it can be adapted to anything and everything I do.
I have several upcoming theatre productions in the works for the fall and winter seasons in 2012. You can find more information on my website: www.yrwilliams.com.
And of course the school year will begin soon! I will be directing theater productions at Jackson State University.
For information on Jackson State University Speech and Theatre Department Productions please visit the website: www.jsums.edu/speechandtheatre
You can contact me via email at YolandaRWilliams@gmail.com
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!