Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Dathan B. Williams

Artist Profile by Peyton Jefferson


Dathan B. Williams has been acting since he was a child. When growing up in school, Williams suffered from a stutter. But, when his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sunlighter, gave him a copy of “the balcony scene” from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he discovered the cause of his stuttering: his thoughts were coming faster than his mouth could form the words to express them. Later that year, while performing as Victor Frankenstein in a school play, Williams made two more discoveries.

Firstly, he did not stutter when he was playing a character who did not stutter. Secondly, he did not stutter when he sang a song that was included in a play. With more voice and speech therapy, Williams made progress and became more confident in his ability to effectively speak. He continued on to do many community theatre productions throughout high school, and attended Wheeling Jesuit University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Social Psychology. After his undergraduate studies, Williams earned an MFA in acting from a satellite graduate school program at West Virginia University, which featured master teaching instructors from Carnegie Mellon and Julliard. 

Dathan B. Williams is now the Associate Artistic Director of The Harlem Shakespeare Festival founded in 1999. It is dedicated to supporting women, youth and especially classically trained actors of color.  The mission is to support emerging and professional classical artists of color, by fostering their artistic achievement and personal growth, by providing opportunities for career development, and by developing creative programming that fosters diversity, inclusion and equality in classical theatre.  He has worked in the U.S. and Canada and has created a diverse body of work as a director, actor/singer, dramaturge and teacher, enjoying a career in both dramatic and musical theater. For the Festival he has served as the dramaturge, adaptor or text coach for nine productions. Recently he dramaturged and directed the Zoom presentation of Leah Maddrie’s Just About Love, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well set amongst the 1964 summer of the Freedom Riders. Other Festival directing credits include staged readings of his own adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing set in post-Civil War Louisiana amongst the free blacks of color and his co-written docudrama The Sable Series: History of Black Shakespearean Actors and four othersHe recently made his Off-Broadway directing debut with Me and Steppin’ at The New Federal Theater (2019 Outstanding Overall Production, Midtown International Play Festival) and was a Director for Disney Theatrical’s MIS program where he directed the musicals: The AristocatsJungle Book and Aladdin, Jr.

His acting credits include: the Broadway and 1st National Tour of Show Boat and seven Off-Broadway shows, including the New York premiers of the musical Christmas In Hell (York Theater Company) and A.R. Gurney’s Buffalo Gal (Primary Stages). Three other National Tours, a lot of Regional Theater 44 Companies including these recent Virtual Performances: Marcus/Deacon Barlow in The Family Shakespeare (Different Translation), Don/Langston/Ben 2 in They Shoot Unicorn Mermaids Don’t They? (Parsnip Ship Play Club), The Duke in Measure for Measure (Instant Shakespeare), Sir Davey Dapper/Openwork in The Roaring Girl, The Duke of Florence in Women Beware Women, Brutus in Julius Caesar and Salarino in The Merchant of Venice for Southwest Shakespeare and these Pre-COVID Regional Credits: Dad in Jump (APAC), Dr.Van Helsing/Dracula (in Transylvania) in Dracula (Triad Stage)Porter Milgrim in Deathtrap (The Cape Playhouse); Lewis Barnett in Proposals (Flatrock Playhouse); Pharaoh Seti in Stephen Schwartz’s Prince of Egypt (Tuacahn); Rev. Peters/Uncle Terry/Station Policeman/Station Guard/Voice Four in  Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; Abbé Faria in the US Premiere of Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy’s The Count of Monte Cristo (Pioneer Theater Company) and Jacques in As You Like It (Montclair Shakespeare Series). International: two seasons with Canada’s The Stratford Festival (‘91 John Hirsch Artistic Director Guthrie Award).

For ten years he was an Inclusion and Diversity Specialist for The Research Foundation where in 2007 he was honored with a mayoral proclamation for his educational services to the City of New York and in 2010 with the New York City Community Education Council District 15 Educational Service Award. He is currently amongst the adjunct teachers at City College of New York. Recently he taught a Color Conscious Casting Workshop for the 2021 Virtual Shakespeare Theatre Association Conference. He has also taught First Folio workshops for Envision Shakespeare, The Public Theater, The Negro Ensemble Company and Flatrock Playhouse and taught at Cornell University, Hunter College and Dixie State University. Next Up: Dramaturge and Assistant Director for The Agitators, which tells the enduring but uneasy friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass for Theater at Monmouth.

Contact Information

For Dathan B. William’s contact page, click here.

Full Interview Transcript


Jefferson: You have mentioned this, or hit on this, already, but could you provide a brief narrative description of your introduction to the theater industry, your progression through it, and your overall career, as well?


Williams: Yes, indeed. Indeed, my introduction to theater was going to see A Raisin in the Sun at Arena Stage. I was 10, and from there every year we would have a trip to go up to New York to see plays. I remember part of that first trip I saw PippinJesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell. I grew up Catholic. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were very Catholic shows in that way. They had the basis on Jesus Christ. But, I wouldn’t necessarily say, you know, that people looked at Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar as being pro-Catholic. But, they had that source. That was my entryway into theater.

I did a play when I was 11. I played Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein. And again, I did not stutter. My mom and my father went: “I have no idea who that child was, but that wasn’t the child that I know. If you can do that, then it is indeed further evidence and proof to us that if we continue giving you voice and speech work, if we continue to find ways for you to sing, then it will help you continue your journey on communication.” I will say that I did do theater throughout my entire high school years. I did theater in my undergraduate school. I went to Jesuit schools from pre-K, all the way through my senior year in high school, and then I went to a Jesuit college. The Jesuits use theater as an entryway into education. So, I was always doing theater in some way, shape, or form throughout those years. 

I did not intend to have a career in theater. But, when I was writing my undergraduate thesis (which was over the social implications of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, because I was getting my undergraduate degree in social psych) one of my professors said after I had been doing work on the stages of my school for a number of years: “you might want to consider this as a profession.” And, of course, I was like: “well it’s a hobby.” He said: “no, I think you need to really think about this as a profession.” I got out of undergraduate school. I was living in Pittsburgh. A good friend of mine had an audition at Carnegie Mellon. Carnegie Mellon was then starting their first MFA program in link with West Virginia University. What was happening is that all the teachers from Carnegie Mellon were going to come down to West Virginia University, because West Virginia University had a series of theaters. They have an a thousand plus auditorium. They had three black boxes. They had a studio theater, and they had a TV studio. All of those spaces were being utilized while the teachers were coming from Carnegie Mellon. So even though my degree says West Virginia University, all of my instructors—Robert Brewer, Angela D’Ambrosia, Mel Shapiro—all came from Carnegie Mellon. Part of that training is that it was a conservatory training. Conservatory training, as you probably know, means that you will study classical theater, and white theater, while you are there. So, that’s what I did while I was in grad school. 

I got out of grad school, and they did an exit interview. The exit interview informed me that even though I spent three years doing classical theater, that when I got out, it was less likely that I would be employed to do classical theater, or that I would work, as much as my white classmates, because that’s what I was trained in doing: which really pissed me off. And so, I set out on a mission, to essentially prove that information wrong. And that has always been kind of my journey: to make sure that people know that I am a classical trained Black actor. Do I make money from that? Yes. But, do I also make money from musical theater? Yes. 

I made my Broadway debut in Showboat. In 1990, David William at The Stratford Festival looked through The Stratford Festival history, and discovered that in the 40 years, there were only two actors of color that were full company members of The Stratford Festival. He went out and changed that. He found five actors of color—four Canadians, and I was the only American. He made us full members of the company. So, I’m part of five people that were the first five people of color to become full members of The Stratford Festival. That’s part of my history. That leads me to where I am now as the Associate Artistic Director of The Harlem Shakespeare Festival, which dedicates ourselves to giving opportunities for people of color to be on stage and to have that training. Because, what we heard—both Debra and I—throughout, was that “oh, I can’t hire a Black person to play Richard III, because when I look at their resume, they don’t have experience on it that says that they can do that role.” Our mission was to change that. If we put on their resume that they have done this role, then you can no longer come back, and sit in your office, and tell people: “oh, I can’t have them because they don’t have the experience doing it.” They do now. 


Jefferson: That’s a very moving story; thank you for sharing that. Just following up, a lot of your discussion revolved around this idea of representation, in terms of people of color being in the industry. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of representation in the classical theater industry, and how that affected you growing up?


Williams: Yes, I think it is extremely important that people see people that have my skin tone: that the younger generation sees people that look like me reflected on the stage. I think that needs to be reflected, not only in classical theater, but in theater throughout the U.S. If it is true that this country is a melting pot of people, then that should be reflected on the stages that we see. 

Part of what I’m doing in this recent thing that I’ve been asked to do for Stratford, is that I have technically gone through and looked at the history of musical theater in the U.S., and how it has been represented on the Broadway stage. And, indeed, the majority of the time that you see a show with African-American actors in it, it is either composed by a white person, written by a white person, and it is most of the time produced by a white person. If it is a review that depends on music that was written by us, but not at that time period, then it has more Black producers behind it. And, they hire Black people to do it because it is our music. But, throughout the more than 200 years of musical theater, there are about thirty-four shows that actually speak directly to the journey, suffering, and trauma that we as African-Americans have experienced on stage in a book form: one of those is A Raisin in the Sun

So, I do believe that we need to have representation. If you cannot see yourself, then you cannot identify yourself in the world. If you do not see a person of color like my father who owned the business, then you do not have the concept that we can own a business. If you do not see people like my mother who I knew was a mathematician, and brilliant, then we do not have the concept that we are brilliant, and can do that. I had that kind of support, and I believe that it is paramount that that kind of knowledge is always given to our people. We are extraordinary. The opportunities to do that have been limited and still remain, in my view, to be tried to be limited. 

I’m not necessarily sure that George Floyd is going to change a great deal. There is a great deal of speech. I’m waiting for that speech to match its actions. I want the speech, and all of the lovely verbal communication that’s coming out, to be backed up by action. I want to see more Black plays. I want to see more Black people on classical stages. I want to see more Black film that is geared from our perspective, with Black writers, with Black actors, with Black producers having the opportunity to do that. That is where I want us to go.


Jefferson: This leads into my next question. In your opinion, what do you think has been the impact of race and racism on Black people working in the theater world, beyond just representation, but also in terms of musicals and Shakespeare?


Williams: I have had more racism happen as an actor in classical theater, than I’ve ever had outside of this industry. One of the first things that I did when I got out of grad school, I did an audition for The Public Theater with Julio Pat. I did “The Henry Ford” speech, where Prince Hal was talking to his father. When I finished that speech, he said to me: “poor boy, did they make you speak like that?” At that time, the casting director, Michael, was a graduate of Carnegie Mellon, and had got me into this audition. He also knew that, as my mother said, “I had the gift of the tongue now,” meaning that I would not tolerate people saying things that I thought were offensively racist. And, on the tip of my tongue was, “I can n*gger this up for you, if you want me to.” Michael saw my eyes, and Michael went like this: “Don’t you dare say what I know you’re going to say.” And, I said “no, they did not make me speak this way, but I stuttered as a child and I had extensive voice and speech work. Maybe that is what you hear reflected in my voice.”

I auditioned for The Shaw Festival. Christopher Newton—and I am going to name names for you—who was the artistic director, called my agent and said: “the words of Shaw do not fit on the lips of a Black person.” When I was working at The Stratford Festival, Michael Langham—we were doing Timon of Athens—and Michael Langham was using the music of Duke Ellington as a source throughout this entire play. When we were in rehearsals, he said: “I want all of you people to give names to your characters. I want you to use the names that your people use.” I said: “my mother’s name is Patricia. My father’s name is Earl. My grandfather’s name is Raymond. My grandmother’s name is Helen. What names do you want me to use?” What he wanted was: “Well, I want you to use, what, Julissa, Bubba?” Whatever ghetto name that he had planted in his head, was what he wanted me to categorize, or to give, my character’s name. I went into David William’s office, told him that, and I made this man apologize in the next rehearsal to the entire company. It is stuff like that that makes people of color not want to enter into classical theater. 

What you really know about classical theater is that it is the language that we all speak: English. It doesn’t say that this is Black language, this is white language, this is Asian language. It is the language that we grew up in, speaking English. And as such, it should have access to everyone. What he [Shakespeare] ultimately is on the journey for is a story about humanity. And, if we come to the text from a level of humanity, the story can always be told. The story is not always necessarily linked to people. He might have been a white playwright, but he wrote a play which is based on someone’s imagination. If you have the imagination, how you populate the stage is part of your imagination and the journey of how you want the story to be told. The fact that the default is always white is not the playwright’s issue, it is the people that are casting. It is the artistic directors. It is the casting directors. It is the graduate schools. 

Right now, we are having this conversation about how we can decolonize voice and speech work. And that, to me, kind of triggers back to the exact same thing. What you essentially are saying again is: “now that we know that we’ve done some things wrong, let’s figure out how we can, once again, make the default a white sound.” Even though we’re going to say: “oh, that’s not what you technically should be doing when you’re doing voice and speech work.” Statements like that make me think that you’re trying to fall back on, and take away from, the journey that you said you were actually going to go on. Let us find another way into the default, that what we want to hear is a white sound. 

That is how I think racism affects what happens. That is why I think that people of color are reluctant to do classical theater. We have a great deal of trauma being members of this U.S. society that we can share from our humanity, to make you [the audience] understand, and lift the words off of a page, so that it becomes tangible to you, and you are able to reflect in our journey, your own life’s journey. That is the beauty of theater. That is the beauty of letting people of color step into who they are, and using every inch of who they are, to bring that to this journey that is on the page. You cannot act if you do not know who you are. To step into a situation where they automatically want you to cut off who you are automatically makes you not able to do what they want you to do. That is not my fault. It is your fault for making that assumption. It is your fault for saying that when you put me in the room, the default is to be white. That may be harsh, but that is the reality.


Jefferson: In your speech, you just talked a lot about this perpetration of Black stereotypes. And so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are in terms of how to subvert Black stereotypes. And also, I think there’s sometimes this idea of Black people not being human, not being part of humanity, like you’ve just spoken on. So, how do you see adaptations or other forms of theater being able to separate Black stereotypes?


Williams: When I worked on Just About Love, and even when I did our version of Much Ado About Nothing, and when I taught Color Conscious casting at The Shakespeare Theater Association virtual conference this year, what I made them understand is that Color Conscious casting is not Color Blind casting. I deliberately make choices that allow us to reflect who we are, and bring all who we are to the story. If you cast wisely, you can use who we are—an Asian person, a Black person, a Hispanic person, a transgender person—to actually articulate and elevate your story in beautiful ways. But you, as the casting person and as the director, have to come to the text with Color Conscious thinking. How can I use who this person is, the whole being, to elevate my story? So that when Leah Maddrie brought Just About Love to The Harlem Shakespeare Festival—and I worked on that as a dramaturg and as a director—we were always looking at: “okay, Leah, you have decided to take this play All’s Well That Ends Well, and you decided to link it to a historical fact, that we as people during Freedom Summer took actors and traveled throughout the South to do voting rights, and we would go into their community and take a classical play and adapt it for the community.” Her version of All’s Well That Ends Well takes back actual factual information and places it in a clever way inside of that particular play. 

And so, when I was passing it, I said: “oh, I am going to also make sure that part of the three people that are in the play, that accompany Helena throughout, that they look like those three civil rights workers who were murdered.” When people come to the story, they have a kind of subconscious of saying: “they actually are placing these things inside of here.” There is a character in All’s Well That Ends Well that Leah said: “I want her to look like Fannie May,” who was a well-known folk singer from the 60s that was also singing Negro spirituals. She said: “I want her to have that kind of impact to the audience that comes.” That is what we did. We were deliberately making conscious choices of how to elevate the story and what we were doing. We deliberately, inside the story, said that the guy who was playing Bertram, when you saw him, appeared as a white actor. But, we say that you may think that he’s white, but in this play, everyone is going to refer to him as being a Black man. It makes them [the audience] look at the journey of race inside of the story. Or, the journey of what may have been the possibility for why he was rejecting Helena, because he may have been a person of color, who may have been able to pass. 

So we use our own stories and our own journey inside of this text to play to our community. When I did Much Ado About Nothing, I deliberately set it after the Civil War, amongst the free people of color in New Orleans because one of the first fighting units that went into the civil war came from New Orleans. The people that you see in the movie Glory, those soldiers actually came from New Orleans. So I said: “let me go back and use our information to place it inside of this story.” When you look at Much Ado About Nothing, the journey of Hero with Claudio is to me the key point of that story: that her father wants Hero to marry into society. I deliberately cast it with people of fair skin that were able, in New Orleans at that time, to possibly pass for white. I deliberately cast Claudio as being a white man, that her father is trying to marry her up into. When our people come to it, we make that kind of connection. It is a Color Conscious casting that takes the story and lifts it for our community. We can never say, “oh, I can’t do that,” because we can. We have actors that are coming out of grad school programs that can do this material. They do not have the opportunity to do it.


Jefferson: This feeds into another question that I had. As an actor, director, dramaturge, writer, and teacher of Shakespeare, how do each of these five roles call for you to vary your approach to Shakespeare’s plays, if at all, in terms of race—since you were just talking so much about how as a director, you approach through Color Conscious casting?


Williams: When I was working at Stratford, I did learn what they call the First Folio technique. The First Folio technique goes back to the original scripts in the First Folio of Shakespeare, and it looks at the punctuation. Because Shakespeare worked with actors, and because the actors had cue scripts—meaning that all they had was the cue before their line—Shakespeare, the way he wrote, deliberately gave you direction on how to play the text. That is based on how it is actually punctuated. It is based on how the First Folio script has archaic spelling: there are some capital words, or there are spaces that are missing inside of the iambic pentameter, that give you clues what Shakespeare was saying: “oh, this is a pause that happens inside of this text, oh that pause can also mean that you can immediately pick up the next part of your text to fill in that pause that is on this actual page.” I look at the text from that standpoint. I do not always necessarily look at it as saying “this is a Black person or a white person.” 

I do look at texts now that do have color inside of it. I just did a new adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I started to really note how much Julia’s information is about her being dark, and how much Silvia’s information is about her being fair. There are things comparing Julia to an Ethiopian. I began to look at that, and go back and look at “The Dark Lady Sonnets,” and actually look at the tone of what did he mean by ‘dark,’ and if indeed she was a person of our hue, how was that being portrayed inside of this text? That I do look at, to find out exactly what his [Shakespeare’s] meaning was. Those particular in the sonnets were passed around inside of his own individual community. If they already knew that he was indeed dating a woman that happened to have our hue, then the text has a different connotation to it because he’s already speaking to people that he knows. We take it outside of that, and you give it to an audience out of today’s world, then we look at it completely different. 

In the old days Black was not painted fair. It has a completely different connotation to us now, and it certainly has a completely different connotation if you have a Black woman do that sonnet. It allowed her to bring who she is to it. It certainly allows me to go back and look, once again, that part of our history of being in England at the time of Shakespeare has been essentially eradicated from the history books. But now, people are starting to say: “oh, there were people of color in England during the time of Shakespeare. There were people of color in Ireland during the time of Shakespeare. There were people of color throughout Europe in the time of Shakespeare.” We were there. Are we in the history books? No, because history is usually based on the dominant society writing information that verifies that they are the most powerful. Certainly, that was not our opportunity. We are removed from those history books. I do find it great that England is making an opportunity to go back and correct that.

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