Director Schele Williams on Broadway’s Race Problem

Schele Williams
zz/John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx 2019 6/9/19 Schele Williams at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. (NYC)

Broadway actor and director Schele Williams has been having a lot of conversations recently about racism in the industry. The conversations vary from those wanting a knee-jerk, quick-fix reaction to a 100-year problem and those who genuinely want to understand and carefully approach change.

Williams appeared in the original production of “Aida” when it debuted on Broadway in 2000. She went on to star in “Hair” and was an associate director on “Motown the Musical.”

She is set to direct the Broadway revival of “Aida.” Williams talked to Variety about change and how Black Theatre United was born as a result of those talks and the Black Lives Matter movement.

What difference have you seen in how people (theater directors and producers) are approaching you?

There have been a variety of responses. Some people want to do a grand gesture and check the “I did something box,” but I have also had some really brave and honest conversations with producers that first want to understand more fully the experience of their Black employees and colleagues and then want to construct a plan to respond to the issues and then chart a course to a more equitable future.

I caution everyone I have spoken to that it’s not going to be a quick fix. Racism needs to be addressed in every facet of the industry and to do this right will take time and rigor.

Where does that responsibility begin in the chain?

The responsibility is each and every one of ours, but the change begins at the top. The gatekeepers are mostly all White —  producers, theater owners, artistic directors, development directors, script readers, casting directors, union leaders, contractors, board chairs, creative teams and general managers.

If you diversify the gatekeepers, the pipeline inevitably diversifies. When you have more diverse perspectives the conversation about the art deepens. That is when we start to tell stories with greater authenticity. When we pair those stories with creative teams that are best suited to tell those stories that is when you dignify the human experiences we are charged to tell with the care and consideration they deserve.

Do you find it exhausting to always fight and to represent that voice of the Black community on Broadway?

I am here because the generations of extraordinary Black artists that have come before me endured, spoke up and advocated so I could in the room. I will do that for the next generation but YES it is exhausting. It takes energy to advocate and create at the same time. I can’t imagine walking into a room and not taking the immediate calculation of how much of my Blackness the room tolerates.

The older I have gotten, the more permission I have given myself to be my authentic self in every room I am in but I am aware that when I speak up for something it is indeed a calculated risk. That is the tax that my White male peers do not have to pay. I pay it twice, as a woman and as a Black person.

How have you learned within your career path to speak up about the problems and the microaggressions that you face? What is it like on Broadway?

At this point in my life, If I take a project, I have to love the piece AND the team. I want to work with people I really like, people that I share my core values.

I learned the term intent vs impact a few years ago and it has given me the key to having difficult conversations. What we do on Broadway is deeply personal. It takes seven to 10 years to get a show from first reading to a Broadway stage.

Years of microaggressions take a toll. I have been able to have conversations with my colleagues that begin with, “I know it was not your intention but when you said “blank” I felt “blank.”

Those kinds of intent vs impact conversations have to lead to greater understanding and compassionate exchanges. That is the place I want to make art from. I hope the DEI work we do now will allow younger black artists to begin their careers making art in safer and more equitable spaces.

You were in the original cast of “Aida” and now you’re bringing it back to direct it, What is it like for you to be bringing it back?

It’s just incredible to be helming this production. I remember the first time I went on for “Aida” like it was yesterday. This show made me want to be a director. It’s surreal.

What’s really wonderful for me is that I am doing it with my longtime friend and mentor Thomas Schumacher. Because Tom and I have been friends for so long, I have been able to have really honest conversations about the show. We have also intentionally comprised a diverse creative team that truly values each other’s perspectives. I can’t wait to share this production with the world.

Do you think Broadway is going to change as a result of the conversations taking place about systemic racism across the industry?

I think it has to change. You cannot separate the art from the artists. What we do is deeply personal. Our consciousness has shifted. There are enough people in every industry out there who are committed to doing the work, that want to be better.

On June 1, 2020 I was invited to join a conversation with some 19 of some of the most talented, awarded, and celebrated Black Artists on Broadway.

That conversation began with, “There are Black people getting killed on our streets — what are we going to do? That night Black Theatre United was born.

Eight weeks later we have over 5000 members and allies. We are committed to using our voices and platforms to advocate for social justice. We are also committed to eradicating systemic racism in the theater industry on Broadway and on stages across the country.

Our mission is to protect Black talent and Black lives on our streets and on our stages, and to empower our community through activism for the pursuit of justice for all humanity. We are united in our vision and our purpose and for that reason, I do believe things will change.