This is Part 2 of my series of 3 interviews with the cast of “Master Harold”. . . and the boys at Bay Theatre Company. Next: Part Three with Baakari Wilder.
The fascinating and multi-talented Michael Anthony Williams is a loving father, actor, writer, and director. Creating the first professional Equity theatre company in Blacksburg, VA., he is the Co-founder of The Actors Theater of Blacksburg. A former Improv company member of Second City Theater Co. (Chicago), Williams is also the founder of Improv Affect, an improvisation-based theater initiative empowering youth to find their voice through the theater.
In one of the most provocative and unforgettable productions that I have seen all year, Michael Anthony Williams is commanding as Sam, in Bay Theatre Company’s three-man ensemble smash of the season – “Master Harold” . . . and the boys in Annapolis, MD.
The stage presence of Michael Anthony Williams is undeniable. His talent is unmistakable. The emotional honesty, wisdom, and humanity that Williams brings to the role of “Sam” is inspired. He is the soul and conscience of the production. Take advantage of your last chance this weekend to see Director Richard Pilcher’s must-see, don’t miss production.
Sydney-Chanele: Tell me about your character, Sam. Who is he?
Michael: He is a gentle soul. He has a big heart. He’s been through whatever bullshit a black man of his age has been through in South Africa – which means multiple jailing and beatings. I feel like I’ve been through the same thing here in the United States. And, at one point he’s had enough. This guy (He says intently) . . . we are so similar, but I would have fucked Hally up. Well, (He corrects himself). without my daughter I would have. Now, she has made me a better man about so many things – tolerance, retaliation, patience. It’s great. It’s great.
So, Sam is me.
How is Sam, leading you night after night in this production?
I go where Sam goes. I let the words and whatever I’m getting input wise from the guys (the cast) trigger what you ( the audience) see. Some days we’re extra silly, and some days we’re extra serious. There is a playfulness that we have on stage. We have all kinda settled in now so we can find little moments that we didn’t have earlier.
As you perform, are you discovering parts of Sam that initially you didn’t realize? Is it deeper on any level?
Yes, it definitely is. But as you get further and further away from opening night, it’s your show. (The actors). So you don’t just have to follow a certain pattern. You do have to follow a certain arc. Different things influence how you feel and how you approach things – and that’s how it is with acting. So, I just like to let this dude be himself and on some days the spits gonna hit him and he’s going to go through rage, then other days the spit has him go through the system, and it’s the pain . . . It’s been a very interesting ride.
Have you ever performed this role or this play before?
I performed 60+ performances as Willie at The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. 12 years ago. This (role as Sam) has been much more interesting, much more intense, and a much more all encompassing experience – but no more demanding. I think that this is probably less demanding because we don’t have to be so silent.
If you say, Michael Anthony Williams is Sam. Were you Willie, twelve years ago when you played that role?
That was twelve years ago. In this game, you can be naive at 60. I think the naivete of Willie was Michael’s naivete. I was rolling in my career. I thought I was on my way and figured fame was coming . . . I was booking stuff left and right really easily. I did my first television series shortly after I got to the DC area (Homicide: Life on the Streets ), and I figured everything was going to be easy. Very naive. Very naive.
I also thought that I would have a family very easily and continue on with my career, but . . . it just doesn’t work that way. You start extrapolating on whatever realty that you are living in. Life happens, and clears it up for you.
But, I love both of these characters. I could do either one again without a doubt.
What is it like for you working with an actor in a role that you have done before?
Watching Baakari do something that I’ve done before … I definitely saw a lot of things that I could steal … learned some stuff from him that I didn’t play with when I did the role.
Tell me about Director Richard Pilcher’s style and how he shaped this production of “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys.
He basically set up a series of stage pictures. He gave us his vision for the dynamics, as we go from scene to scene – like trying to set up the relationships at the top with the two of us – Willie and me. Then he set up a three-person dynamic, so that once we transformed it, people would understand that they were taking a journey. So he gave us our road map. We were chomping at the bit just relax and “play” when he left. But he’s been back since, and has let us know that he’s quite pleased with what he’s sees. That always helps. Out of respect to the director we have been very diligent about sticking to that road map.
What research did you do to prepare for this role?
I knew the text . . .
My story with this particular situation is that I was looking at a forced relocation back to this area. I had been teaching acting in Blacksburg, VA at Virginia Tech, and I was teaching there for four years I also started a theater company there four years ago. So, I was teaching and working on my theater company, when I got laid off this past year. I was also co-parenting down there with my ex-wife. I am very, very close with my daughter, Margarita. She’s seven years old. I got an email from my ex in January (2012) and she informed me that she was going to move back to the (DC) area, and that she was taking Margarita. Well, over my dead body, or I was going to be there.
I started looking the next day for shows in the area that interested me so that I could physically be here – so that I could transition back. (We had lived in DC before we moved to Blacksburg). My kid, … she made it very clear that she needed me there. She didn’t have to tell me, but the fact that she did and was so eloquent with it, made it even more intense.
I saw “Master Harold” and jumped on it immediately. I told my daughter, “There’s a show in the area that I’ve done before that I really like and I’m going to get it”, said Williams with steel determination. My daughter said,”Daddy, don’t you have to audition?’ And I said ‘yeah but it’s just a formality. I’m going to get this thing!”
So, I tightened up and started working on my dialect again – a dialect that has been locked in since 1995 when I did a show in Chicago with Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Nomathemba (Hope). They taught me the South African dialect I learned. They busted my guts about the dialect. So the dialect has been in place about 20 years now.
Auditions were in March. The fact that I get to revisit shows, helps. I just took the script, broke it down phonetically, and then I started putting the monologues in my head long before rehearsals started. I got those out of the way. Rehearsals started in September.
So what efforts have you taken to transition back into the DC theatre scene?
My energy was on easing the transition for Margarita. Then I found two productions. “Master Harold” . . . and the boys, and Race by David Mamet being done by Theater J, that I will be in. So I’m looking forward to working with them.
Ari (Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J) and I have been trying to get together for about 15 years.
So I booked those first because I figured they would keep me up with Margarita, and then I got a beautiful contract from George Mason University in their Criminology department. I’m doing criminology research. That gig iced the transition. And, yesterday I literally just secured housing in Kensington for when this show ends, so the transition will be complete. Margarita is doing well in school, and she’s happy to have Daddy next to her. I don’t know … I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my kid.
Let’s shift gears and talk about Athol Fugard, and his text. What do you appreciate about “Master Harold” … and the boys, and Fugard’s writing?
Fugard, I love a lot of what he’s written. I love everything about “Master Harold”. It’s amazing to me how well received his works were here in the United States. White folks didn’t want to hear Black American voices in the theater for the longest, but they damn sure would rush to hear a white South Afrikaner’s version of black folks. That is the dichotomy that is …
Are there any shows by Fugard that you would still like to perform?
I’ve done “Master Harold”, and I’ve done My Children, My Africa. I would like to do Boesman and Lena. There are all kinds of rich stuff that he has written. I love his stuff! I’m a writer myself.
Yes, I see in the cast bio that you are a member of the American Screenwriter’s Association. Tell me about your screenplays and your writing.
I’ve written three screenplays. Two that don’t matter, and one, Preacher of the Year, that did some damage in a couple of screenplay competitions.
Why do you say – ‘two that don’t matter’?
Because I haven’t really given the time and thought that they need. They are still works in progress. Those were written pre – turbulence in the marriage, pre – Margarita, and I actually never thought I would get my creative zone back while I was married. I thought I would never be creative again. Those why I ran like Jesse Owens away from the marriage. But I got it back, and now I’m about to be settled again here in the region, or at least until Margarita is out of High School. So I now look ahead of me and I’ve got a vista of steadfast, and that’s usually when I get quiet enough to go back in do some writing..
It sounds like emotionally so much has happen since you first wrote those two screenplays.
Yes. That’s the great thing about writing is that you can breathe new life into it. The screenplays are written but I need to go in and gut them. Move them around, which is great.
I’ve also written half of another play that I’ve written for actors and puppets. Rudolph. That’s going to be the first one I go to when I get settled because it’s a holiday piece. It’s a stage play – a musical, based on Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
Does writing come naturally to you, or would you say acting is more a part of your soul?
I think probably both. I started writing because I got tired of auditioning for shit. So I started creating my own stuff. But also as an actor, when I started writing I gained new respect for the written word than before I was a writer.
I’ve known Nikki Giovanni all my life. Our fathers were friends in the 30’s and 40’s in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nikki has given me her latest children’s book to adapt for the stage. We will create together. love writing,…ahh. (Smiling).
Also, in your repertoire of talent, is a backround in improv comedy. What was it like being a member of Chicago’s Second City Theater Co.?
It was a fantastic experience. I got to work with a bunch of comedians that are huge right now – Steven Colbert, Amy Sidaris, and Steve Carell – who was my teacher at the training center, and he actually had a lot to do with me getting hired. That was a great time, but I knew before I got there that I needed a plan for myself, otherwise Second City would provide one for me. I think I was the third of fourth African American in the history of the company. Once I got in, I knew why.
I learned a lot… and not just about comedy. I was with Second City for three years, and knew that I didn’t want to do comedy. Early on, somebody told me in this business, that you only have one chance to give away your integrity. I wasn’t going to go ‘Coon’ in Hollywood for nobody. I figure they had enough of them. I didn’t want to be my age, doing that. I want my daughter at age thirty, to be able to look back on my body of work and be proud of everything I’ve done. And, I mean everything.
So I look at the fame some have had, and seen where others like Tim Meadows have gone with their fame. Some of them – like Chris Farley – are gone.
I look at where I am today with a pretty decent body of work, peace of mind, health, and a little girl who just makes my day. And, I wouldn’t really have it any other way.
“Master Harold”…and the boys has two remaining performances – tonight at 8:00 P.M. and tomorrow at 2:00 P.M. at Bay Theatre Company – 275 West Street, in Annapolis, MD. To order tickets, call (877) 503-9463 or purchase them online.
An Interview with Sean McComas of ‘Master Harold”…and the boys’ by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.
Review of “Master Harold”…and the boys by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DC Theater Arts.