Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Dawn Monique Williams

Artist Profile by Elizabeth Gerlach


Dawn Monique Williams (she/her) is the Associate Artistic Director at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, CA. She is a theatre director and educator and frequently lectures on Black theatre in the U.S. and Shakespeare performance. Her artistic practice is concerned with confronting and dismantling systems of oppression and her writing interrogates contemporary, multiracial Shakespeare performance and adaptation. 

Her recent directing credits include an audio version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye adapted by Lydia R. Diamond (Aurora), Lauren Gunderson’s The Half-Life of Marie Curie (TheatreSquared), Letters to Kamala (American Stage Company), Bull in a China Shop (Aurora), Earthrise (Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Moon Man Walk, Tijean and His Brothers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (American Conservatory Theatre, MFA program), an audio version of Lynn Nottage’s Las Meninas, The Secretaries (Profile Theatre), Romeo & Juliet (Chautauqua Theatre), August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (Le Petit and UNCO), Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Stark (Douglas Morrisson and UNCO), and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Town Hall). Dawn’s awards include a Princess Grace Theatre Fellowship, a TCG Leadership U Residency Grant, and a Drama League Directing Fellowship. She holds an MA in Dramatic Literature and an MFA in Directing. Dawn is a proud member of SDC.

Contact Information

Gurman Agency LLC: (Susan Gurman)

For Dawn Monique William’s contact page, click here.

Full Interview Transcript


Gerlach: So first off, I was just wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your introduction to Shakespeare and what your initial impressions were of his work when you were first encountering it?

Williams: Absolutely. I’ll try and be brief. So,  like most, you know, public school kids, I was introduced to Shakespeare in junior high. What they now call middle school. And I remember very distinctly, we were assigned to read Romeo and Juliet and I was particularly miserable because I just couldn’t understand it. You know, I was trying to read the play and it felt like a foreign language. It felt sort of stuffy. I didn’t get it. So I remember my mom took me to the Blockbuster Video. That was a thing back then. And they didn’t have, we were looking for the Zeffirelli, and they didn’t have the Zeffirelli, but there was West Side Story. So I remember we rented West Side Story as my introduction to Romeo and Juliet. And then eventually I did see the Zeffirelli one, which I still really love a lot to this day.

But you know, then I went to high school where, you know, there’s even more required reading, so then in high school, you know, in several English classes, there it is again. And at that point in my life, I was really resistant to it. I really was like, why is the play that’s whatever, 400 years old, written by a dead white guy, what does that have anything to do with me or my life? And we were shown what, at the time, I would categorize as bad movie versions. Obviously I’m more evolved in my thinking now. And so they’re just movie versions that represent the time that they were made. 

But I really hated it. I mean, I really hated Shakespeare. I really felt like it was a weapon that was being used against me as a student to say that I wasn’t smart enough or good enough, or it was just, it was boring. It didn’t feel pertinent to my life. And I was a drama kid, but we didn’t do it in the drama department. It was something my drama teacher just didn’t have a lot of interest in herself, so I wasn’t introduced to it as theater, it was just in my English classes. 

So great, fine. I go off to college. I want to be on Broadway. I’m going to be a star, I’m a theater major. And I decided to do this summer program at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco–their summer training conference. And it’s modeled after MFA conservatory training. And so we have text class that’s specifically for Shakespeare. And then we have our scene study classes. And I remember in my scene study class being assigned something that was really upsetting for me. And it wasn’t Shakespeare, it was a contemporary play, but I was playing a character who, you know, was on drugs and had lost her son to foster care. And I was like, is this really as a Black woman the only thing I have to look forward to– as an actor, these kinds of characters? 

 And I had an acting teacher who was Chicano, his name is Tommy Gomez. He recently just passed. So I just, I love to speak his name whenever I can. He was a classical actor and he said, well, what about Shakespeare? And I was like, oh, that’s so boring. I don’t understand it. And he’s like, more actors of color get employment in Shakespeare and musical comedy than anything else. This was in the late nineties. He said, you know, it wouldn’t hurt you to just have it as part of your toolkit. He said, we’ll do some Shakespeare scene studies. And so I started that summer reading the plays, but with a mindset towards acting, and Tommy cast me to play Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I had the time of my life. It was the most fun I had ever had as an actor. It was the hardest I had ever had to work as an actor. I had to really decode the text. I had to look things up. I had to figure out how to say the words and convey the meaning and make it clear to the listeners, which meant I had to really understand at first. And there was a full body engagement that had to happen. It was so muscular to have to do that language, and be so physical in my body, that I loved it. 

And from that time on, I started being a little bit hooked. So I said, okay, I’m going to give these plays a chance. And I started by reading the comedies because they were a little bit easier. By then there were more accessible versions of the films, like the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet. Kenneth Branaugh had started making a lot of Shakespeare films, right? So the Othello with him and Lawrence Fishburne was out, and that Hamlet he did with Kate Winslet. So it, so I just sort of started taking it in and then auditioning for more Shakespeare plays. So I did a lot of acting and Shakespeare plays. And then in my early twenties, I sort of made a shift to directing and I still had a huge appetite for those plays. And so I’ve really been on a trajectory of dedicating my time and energy to decoding these plays and removing barriers to access for these plays. All because I started as a kid who was like, screw this stuff.

Gerlach: Yeah. I had a question I was planning to ask later, but now seems like the perfect time. So I was reading your old blog that you wrote about Shakespeare criticism, and you talked about falling in love with Shakespeare’s language because it’s so  epic and messy and emotional, and as you just said, it’s muscular to perform. But also, this language presents real challenges, whether that’s just because it’s old and confusing and feels like a different language, or also, in my class we read this James Baldwin essay, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” And he talked about Shakespeare being like this agent of oppression and white cultural supremacy. And he just didn’t resonate with it. He felt like it was being used to oppress him. So I wanted to ask how you approach the task of  doing Shakespeare, putting on a Shakespeare play, for people who feel for whatever reason that this language just isn’t theirs.

Williams: Yeah, it’s sort of this interesting conundrum because we think of this as, you know, foreign. Sometimes I hear people call it Old English. It’s not Old English, it’s actually Early Modern English. But yes, a lot of the syntax and usage was different than how we speak now. And even beyond that, punctuation wasn’t regularized, spelling wasn’t regularized, Shakespeare invented so many words. And what actually helped me kind of lean into that was being somebody who was an urban youth, somebody who was into hip hop and actually linking those ideas that like, oh, Shakespeare was using some colloquial phrases and Shakespeare was using slang and Shakespeare was talking a lot in metaphor and simile, like the same way we might, you know, “cap”  on one another, you know, on the block. Or the way to get a rhyme scheme right for a poem or a battle rap or whatever, you might flip your syntax to get that rhyme scheme right. And like, no, that’s not like the formal writing that we would turn in on an essay. But it conveys meaning and it has its own thing. 

So once I started realizing that what Shakespeare is doing is actually much closer to what it’s like to be a hip hop head or be an urban youth,  it made more sense to me. And the idea that like, as a young kid, you know, you say “ain’t,” and you get in trouble for saying “ain’t.” Or if you say, you know, “I aksed you” and you get in trouble for saying it like that. Or, you know, “I’m finna.” And you’re told these things are not the King’s English or the Queen’s English, and Shakespeare has sort of been held up as this epitome of the Queen’s English, the King’s English. And yet he was inventing it as he went. 

And so I think, to answer your question more directly, when we do these plays now, I want for the actors to make sense of it in their own sort of body in their own rhythms. And like, yes, we have iambic pentameter there for the verse, but how do we convey meaning now? How do you need to shape a sentence to convey meaning now? What is the thought? So we have all these tools with the meter and the verse and, you know, trochee and spondee, like we have all of that, but we also just have: I’m trying to communicate a thought, I’m trying to communicate an idea, how do I shape my sounds to do that? And I think that also changes over time.

So I encourage actors to, if they want to, do an intonation or an inflection or something that feels very contemporary. But if it’s communicating the meaning, even if the meaning is a little bit shifted from what we might speculate Shakespeare wrote, that’s fine with me. Because it’s like, what is our audience going to get today? So I love for actors to figure out in their bodies how the rhythm makes sense, figure out in their bodies how they want to use the punctuation. You know, the punctuation for sure is not like a specific science. And I know there are people who are first folio purists, but the first folio was assembled posthumously. So Shakespeare did not authorize that. So I’m like, punctuation is a suggestion in Shakespeare’s case. It’s different with contemporary plays where we’ve had regularized punctuation. Now, the playwright wanted that comma for a reason, but with Shakespeare it might be like, maybe if you tried it with that comma, or, you know what, that comma is holding you up, what if you tried it without that comma? Or like, how do you play a colon or a semicolon, right? Like that’s so open to interpretation. So I just want actors to live in it in a way that makes sense for them, and not worry about any affectation or any sort of “Shakespeare voice” or anything like that. 

Gerlach: I wanted to ask, so you talked to me a little bit about your experience with Shakespeare in school, and I’m kind of interested in hearing how your relationship to Shakespeare changed when you started pursuing directing and theater as a career, because it’s an art form, but it’s also a job that presents its own challenges. So how did that change your relationship to Shakespeare? 

WilliamsYeah, that’s a multi-layered answer. So in one regard when I sort of discovered Shakespeare and came to understand the plays, not as like these like, great literary achievements, but actually as blueprints for production, like things that were not actually written to be read like we would read a novel, but actually written to be embodied by humans and were meant for performance. That right there helped me a lot, just to know that he gave each actor their sides on the go. He didn’t sit down to write a tome. So that gave me permission already to just sort of free myself from this notion that this is some literary masterpiece. It’s meant to be embodied. The words are meant to be embodied. It’s meant to have a human expression, a heartbeat and breath.

And so as an actor, I was really excited about that. Then when I shifted to directing–see, I started in theater as a musical theater person. So everything to me already had that sort of large scale in there. Already for me there was the integration of music, the voice, song, movement, and dance, and Shakespeare seemed to just lend itself to that so well. And it felt big and messy and epic and not like a kitchen sink realism, which was something that I kind of was like, oh, that’s a little boring. But Shakespeare felt like it had that large S, it had that epic. Some of these plays jumped 15, 30 years, right? Like, Pericles takes a span of 15 years,  Anthony and Cleopatra is like 42 scenes. So, for me, it also became a place where my creative imagination could sort of run wild, and I think that Shakespeare can bear the weight of almost anything. I won’t say everything. I’ve seen some productions and I’ve attempted some concepts that maybe were ill-advised, but it can bear the weight of almost anything. I mean, it’s had to, right, to still be with us 450 years later. And so for me, that opened a lot of doors creatively in my imagination. 

But when you talk about the career aspect? So as an artist, it was like this wonderful possibility. It’s like somebody giving you the keys to the kingdom. But career-wise, it has been a real challenge because there are a lot of gatekeepers. There are a lot of people, academics and theater professionals alike, who believe themselves to be the authority on Shakespeare. They believe themselves to be the Shakespeare scholars. And traditionally that has been a lot of white folk in this country. And even within that, a lot of that has been white men. So when I’m fresh out of grad school, a 30 something Black woman, there’s a lot of gatekeepers. So career-wise, I had to do a lot of maneuvering and strategizing and asking for opportunities. I remember in grad school, I said to my advisor, I really need you to let me do Shakespeare as my thesis, because if I don’t do it here in the academy and have it on my resume, nobody will take me seriously out there. They won’t think that I’ve had the requisite training or whatever to consider myself a Shakespearian. Fortunately, my grad school gave me that opportunity. I’m so grateful because it is exactly what I needed. So it has been this sort of juggling game of like, as an artist it’s been so fulfilling. My favorite plays to play in have been the Shakespeare plays. And yet career wise, it has often felt like an uphill climb and a little bit of a fight. And I spent a lot of years really trying to brand myself as a Shakespeare director to get people to take me seriously as somebody who had the chops and the knowledge to do Shakespeare. So yeah,

Gerlach: That makes sense. That’s also interesting because I’ve read a lot, I’ve heard a lot, about increasing the number of people of color that are cast in [acting] roles in theater. But I think people seem to talk a little bit less about the other roles. And so I’m interested as a director, what are your thoughts on how to make the theater world easier or more welcoming for people like you? Like how do you remove the gatekeeping? I mean, what have you seen work? Are there any initiatives that have had tangible success? What are your thoughts? 

Williams: Well, I will say even just from when I finished grad school 10 years ago till now I have seen a lot of shifts. I do think there are some initiatives that I’m a beneficiary of that I have seen work, like the Drama League in New York, which is the oldest service organization specifically invested in the careers of stage directors. They have a classical directing fellowship specifically for directors of color. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival where I spent six years in residence also has several directing programs, and I was a directing fellow there. And while it’s not specifically geared for people of color, anybody can apply for those things, the idea is that if you get that fellowship, you are specifically going to work on a large scale classical play. And OSF has a lot of equity initiatives, so that apprenticeship program does a lot of work to make sure that they’re recruiting a wide array of folks. And so again, I got that fellowship and was there working on a large scale Shakespeare play, and then I was in residence there for six years. 

And I also know some other programs that are doing things like that. Like the Old Globe in San Diego has a classical initiative for directors of color. So I’m seeing these things pop up more and more. It also, I think, was an academy issue for a while. So if you think of the highest ranked conservatory programs that we might think of, like Yale School of Drama, well, you know, all MFA students in the acting and directing at Yale are going to spend their second year on a verse project, like as part of the curriculum. So when they start admitting more students of color, then that creates a stronger pipeline to professional opportunities, because then there are more directors of color coming out of that program who have the training. 

Now, I also think we have to leave space for theater makers of color to decide if they have any interest in Shakespeare at all. I don’t think it should be compulsory. If theater makers don’t want to do Shakespeare, nobody should force them to or say you have to want to do this thing. But I do think we have a sort of standing tradition of like, directors aren’t hired unless the artistic director has seen their work. And so there’s been this cycle of, you know, we hire the people that are already in our circles.

And so at some point somebody just has to say, I’m ready to take a chance on a director who might be young, on a director who might be BIPOC, on a director who might be trans, and I’ve not seen their work because they were working in wherever, right? They were working in San Francisco and I didn’t get out to San Francisco or they were working in Chicago and I didn’t make it over to Chicago, but I talked to them, they seem eager, they seem excited, they have a good head on their shoulders. Let’s take the chance. 

And I think theaters have been very shy about taking the chance. And in fact, I’ve heard panels where they’ll say, well, it’s an unknown quantity and in hiring women and people of color is the risk. And, and I feel like that’s antithetical to the idea that we are in the nonprofit sector, right? Most regional theaters are not for profit. So you can hire a director. Like we have to stop operating on these corporate models and talking about risks. I think we can think about return on investment and what happens if you’re the person that takes the chance on that young director, on that woman director, on that trans director, that disabled director, and they actually are the genius we’ve all been waiting for. And then you get to put that feather in your hat. So I do feel like I’ve seen that change. Like I’m on a panel tomorrow night where we’re all directors of color talking about Shakespeare. So I’ve certainly seen the change happen. I have a lot of colleagues, I have a dear friend who has a theater group, Black Girls Love the Bard. And then I have another friend who’s doing Shakespeare in Detroit. She’s another Black woman. 

So we’re out there. And I think early in my career, I was like, well, if they knew that I was here, they’d give me more opportunities. So I thought it was about shouting loud enough. And then I realized, oh no, it’s not about shouting loud enough. They don’t care. And I’ve been on many panels and in many conversations, especially over the last 18 months where I’m starting to see that Shakespeare theaters, classical theaters, are recognizing that they must care. They must start to care if they haven’t. I think many of them were on that path, on that trajectory already, but now they must start to care. And so I’m seeing a greater effort to get other folks, directors and designers in the door. Thank you for asking that question.

Gerlach: Yeah. So you brought up the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and how they helped to encourage you and  give you a space to work. And I was reading an interview that you did with Ayanna Thompson in the Shakespeare, Race and Performance book. And you talked about the OSF policy of “color conscious casting,” which is different from colorblind, because colorblind would be assuming white neutrality. I’m interested in hearing you elaborate a little bit more on what casting directors should be conscious of– what are the potential pitfalls in taking this approach, but also what are the opportunities? How have you seen color conscious casting make a production more interesting? How have you utilized that to make productions more interesting, but also what do you have to look out for? 

Williams: There are definite pitfalls, if you’re not thinking things through, I’ve certainly seen productions, Shakespeare and otherwise, where I’m watching and I’m like, yeah, that’s great. There are plenty of people of color, oh great. They gave women these roles. Great. Okay. But then you’re like, but it’s just the villains! Or it’s just the shrews, or it’s just the servants, or it’s just, you know. So you start to be like, well, that’s just reifying old bad tropes. So it’s not enough to just be like, yeah, we did this and we cast people of color and we cast disabled actors. Like it’s actually not enough to just tick things off the list. It needs to be thoughtful. And people are all complex, so yes, I’m sure there are actors out there that are hungry to play villains, so I’m not saying never cast actors of color as villains. But where’s the balance on any given production? 

I am not suggesting that everything has to always just weigh equal, but do consider that if you stack the show, with all the villains are marginalized people of marginalized identity and none of your romantic leads or people of marginalized identity, what are you saying? That people of marginalized identity don’t fall in love? Don’t have partners that they think are sexy, even if they’re plus size, or seven feet tall, or use a wheelchair? Like no, people live full lives and people love! And so it’s great that actor can play that villain. And that’s great. And they want the opportunity to do that. And also, let’s give some of these actors opportunities to play romantic leads, to play the heroes. So that it’s really flushed out and really a well-rounded opportunity and not just reifying old, bad trashy tropes.

 Also for me, I know sometimes people get hung up on the biology of it, like, well, this race person and that race person can’t make this race child, but that negates the experience of so many multi-ethnic, multi-racial humans. That negates the experience of people that might be adopted or not raised by their biological parents. Like those are families too. My mom is white, so I’ve never looked like my mom, never one day! But we’re a family. So why can’t you cast, I mean, especially with Shakespeare plays where it’s the rarest that you have two parents in the story anyway, and there’s always just like a dad or a mom, so this idea that it has to make biological sense…, but are you screening everybody’s Irish identity when you do an Eugene O’Neill? You’re not actually asking those actors if they’re Irish, right? So you might look at me and not, I think most people probably assume that I have a white parent, but I mean, I lean real heavy into being Black. So you might look at me and not know that I have a white parent. But I do. And so multiethnic people should have the opportunity to live that life fully on the stage. So I think people get too hung up on that. 

But the converse of that is also if you’re just kind of doing it all arbitrarily, then yeah, it might take some viewers out of the story. So you do still have to be thinking consciously, give conscious thought to who you’re bringing together as a company, how you’re casting the play. Then you have to make sure that you’re providing opportunities for those through lines to continue.

I am a director who does not believe in asking actors to sublimate their identity. So I don’t want an actor of color to come into the rehearsal room and say wait, this person is playing my father and they’re white and Shakespeare’s white. So you must be asking me to play a white character. No, I’m asking you to play the ethnicity that you are, that you showed up with in the room today. I’m not asking you to pretend that you are not Black or Asian or multiethnic, that you are not a combination of many, many things. And so I think those mechanisms also have to be in place in the rehearsal hall. So that actors understand what they’re being asked to do. Because I think sometimes actors of color are being asked to assume that white neutrality, but nobody’s articulated that to them. And then they’ll get notes about their speech or their dialect or a mannerism or something. So I think you also have to have that conversation so that it’s clear. And for me, I’m not asking you to play a race other than the one you are. And that means we need to have a conversation about how is this Lord Montague, and this is lady Montague, and I’m this. And so then we create that backstory and maybe the audience will never know, but we built that with integrity in the rehearsal room, so that that actor could be playing, you know, the truth of it from where they come from and not trying to imitate whiteness or some other -ness. 

So I mean, I could go on and on and on. But I think, yes, there are pitfalls, there are way more benefits, but it has to be handled thoughtfully and with care and you actually have to have a conversation with the actors and let them know why you’ve invited them to be in the room with you and what expectations surround that so they have clarity.

Gerlach: Yeah. Could you kind of talk about your approach that you’ve taken in the past to racially conscious casting, like an example of a play you’ve done where you actually used racially conscious or color conscious casting to make the play more interesting?

Williams: Yeah. sure. First of all, I don’t direct monoracial casts that are all white. So that’s something I stopped doing a long time ago and, with the exception of one university opportunity that presented itself recently, I have not directed monoracial white casts. And I sort of just refuse to, and largely because my world is not monoracial. It is not monoracial white, it is not monoracial Black, it’s not even biracial. I don’t occupy a Black and white world. I live in a very diverse area. My colleagues and friends  make up a multitude of identities, race, gender, abilities. So I always want to reflect the world that I hold space in onstage. So I always approach it from that mindset. 

And then, you know, I am trying to think through things in the story. And so there are situations, you know, I did Merry Wives at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the families were sort of wildly multiethnic without any disclaimer or writing it away. So there is a mom who is Latina, and a dad who’s Asian, and then the daughter who’s Latina, but then another kid who’s Black and like, how do we make sense of that? I didn’t feel like we needed to write that in or explain that away, because we were also doing this big raucous farce in Elizabethan silhouettes with 1980’s hair and singing, you know, so it’s already like, this is taking up the imagination space. I don’t need to do that math for you as an audience. If you can’t show up and just have a good time and just laugh, then you probably need to check some other things that you’re wrestling with.

But if I use an example of this Lynn Nottage piece that I just did more recently, and we did it as an audio version, but still it’s written very specifically to feature a mixed race woman who’s learning her history that her father was brought here as an African, well the play’s set in France, but brought to France as an enslaved African, and her mother was the queen and they had an affair and la la la. But otherwise you might think, okay, well we cast the African Black and we cast this young woman Black or multi-ethnic or something, and then that’s it, everyone else is white. But I thought, well, that’s such a missed opportunity. There were these other characters in the play that when I look at the texts, like this enslaved African relates to these other characters, there’s this kinship there, they talk about class and they talk about status. So I was like, so what if I also cast somebody Black in that role too? So I think we can also just stretch beyond and find those other little gems.

 I did a production of Romeo and Juliet at Chautauqua Theater and they build sort of a company, and then those actors are shared between three shows. And so some of the other shows had more specific needs that were specific towards race, because they were doing  Detroit ‘67 and another show. So those shows set the tone because then all of those actors have to end up in this show. So we ended up with a cast that was predominantly actors of color. And what was so beautiful about that is that we had a Romeo and a Juliet that were Black and a Mercutio and a Benvolio that were Black.

But then we had a Friar Lawrence who was South Asian and the Capulets were a mixed interracial couple. And so the world was populated with a diverse array of people. And there was only that one place with the Montague’s where it was like, hmm, okay, well, they’re both white. So how do they have a Black son? But we, like I said, we talked about that in rehearsal. And the actor even came up with a backstory that felt satisfactory for him so that he could still show up and fully be a Black man and not feel like he was playing like a white Romeo. And I think that has been such a great experience because it wasn’t about “we’re going to do an all Black Romeo and Juliet,” or we’re going to do this spin. We’re going to do Romeo and Juliet. And this is the company of actors that are going to do Romeo and Juliet. And these actors represent many diasporas. And that was a lot of fun and a beautiful thing.

Gerlach: So I want to be respectful of your time so we can kind of wrap up now, but I just wanted to ask you before you went, what is next for you? What are you working on right now? Where should people keep an eye out for you? What are you excited about?

Williams: Oh, that’s a great question. So I’m currently the associate artistic director of Aurora Theater Company, which is a theater in Berkeley, California, and I’m working with the playwright Cleveland Smith on developing his new play. And then I always have gigs lined up. So I’m looking forward to producing some more things. The theater shutdown has me leaning a lot into technology. So I’ve done a lot of virtual theater, if we are going to call it that. And so I’m really kind of taken now by this hybrid, you know, what the future holds for theater makers and occupying a hybrid space. So I’m exploring some options.

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