When Don Williams was in seventh grade, he signed up to be Michael Jackson singing “ABC” in a talent show. He looked forward to singing it before school. But then the boys who were going to play the Jackson 5 backed out.
Luckily, some other friends joined him. Williams loved the experience of performing.
“People yelled and screamed, and we were number one in place as far as the talent that we bought before the school,” he said. “Something clicked inside of me because of the hard work of learning the dance steps and the coordination of organizing the team. I saw value when you come together and work in a collaborative way.”
This semester, Williams starts as a senior professor in the UC Santa Cruz Performance, Play & Design department. But he’s been a lecturer there for many years, and in 1991, he started the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT).
In high school, Williams was in his first major production, “West Side Story,” playing Baby John, the boy who wants to join the Jets. When a review came out in the local newspaper, the critic wrote that Williams stole the show.
Deciding that theater was his calling, Williams majored in Theater Arts at Michigan State University. He started an acting company there as well, which performed vignettes and dances at community centers, churches, and schools.
“It was an all-Black theater troupe that I created because I just wasn’t getting the parts that I wanted to get,” Williams said. “They weren’t doing plays that I could really put my teeth into.”
To run the group, Williams learned technical skills, and he took those skills out to Los Angeles where he did lights on a show for Ted Lange, the actor who played Isaac on The Love Boat. Lange introduced him to Nick Stewart, who had the oldest Black theater company in California, Ebony Showcase Theater. Williams worked for Stewart and got a job at the University of Southern California, doing technical operations. While there, he took multiple classes towards his master’s in theater.
When a full-time technician job came up at UC Santa Cruz, Williams applied. He called people back in Michigan and told them what he was seeing.
“I thought I was walking back into time into the 1960s with the love buses and the tie-dyed shirts,” he said. “I remember going to the beach and seeing these drum circles.”
Williams took the job and after a while he saw that Black students were having the same experience he’d had at Michigan state, with a lack of interesting roles.
Although Williams was married with two children and a full-time job, he made the decision to single-handedly put on Lonne Elder III’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men about a Harlem barber and his family. Williams didn’t get paid for his work and the students didn’t receive any credit.
“That's how hungry they were,” Williams said “They said, ‘Mr. Williams, we don't care. We want to do a show.’”
The sold-out houses convinced Williams to create the AATAT, and a couple years later, after hearing from other students of color that they would like something similar, he founded the Rainbow Theater, which became a five-unit course.
Williams says he believes that if you try and service people from your heart, good things will come. He feels like being a professor in the department he’s worked in for so long is one of those good things.
“This is a part of who we are in America,” he said. “We as a people have to learn how to come together, and I think theater has always been a major, major vehicle for doing that.”