Statements under the Immorality Act// Interview with the director

The Mac Weekly sits down with James A. Williams ’77, an award-winning actor and director who has appeared on major stages across the country, including Broadway. Williams is directing the Theater and Dance Department’s upcoming mainstage production, Statements under the Immorality Act.

How did you first become interested in theater?

I was a high school student in Saint Louis, MO, and I was in a program called “Upward Bound.” We had a teacher there named Barbara Woods, who taught poetry and literature and theater, and she decided that she wanted to have us do a play every summer. We were doing some one-acts, by Douglas Turner Ward, who was one of the founders of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, back in the ’60s. We did a play called “Happy Ending,” and it was this hilarious farce about two maids who worked for this rich couple, and they [the couple] came home one day crying and they [the maids] found out they were getting divorced. The maids then sat down with the nephew, who was living in the house at the time and proceeded to tell him what working for these people meant. The nephew was in college, taking all of his liberal arts studies and he was there because the couple was helping to put him through, and just a lot of other things. Near the end of the play, there is a husband of one of the maids who comes in and he has about four lines and I was playing the husband. Through a variety of twists and turns, two days before the play opened, I got bumped up to playing the nephew and I didn’t know the lines. Now when I think about it, if I had known to be afraid, I would have been terrified. We just pasted pieces of the script around different places on the set and we just had to remember the order to walk in, to have the right thing in my hand, to be able to do it. And at the end, everybody applauded, and it was just a great feeling and it stuck. And then I got here, and the theater department was really going full blast at that time. They were looking for actors, and I did this senior directing project, right here in this black box, so this is kind of a full journey. It was just something that I was doing to keep busy, and little did I know I was going to end up doing it forever.

Can you talk about the production you’re doing now? Why is it important for Mac students to see?

It’s a period piece. It takes place in the ’60s, during the height of apartheid in South Africa. It takes place in a small town, where a gentleman of color knocks on the back door of the library looking for a book and meets the librarian. They end up having this affair during a period of time when the government says that this is illegal for two people of different races to have any kind of intimate knowledge of each other be it physical, mental, whatever. The separation of race was the law of the land. And it’s really a love story about what is it like when you’re trying to make a connection with someone when society has decided it should be forbidden. It’s about what it’s like having to sneak and have clandestine rendezvous in a small town – it’s kind of the nature of oppression. I would compare it now to gay marriage, and what happens when the government says you can’t do things. In this case, not only can you not do it but also if you are caught in any kind of relationship whatever, both of you will go to jail. So it’s a love story about what are you willing to sacrifice?

So you’re back at Mac. How have you seen things change? How is it directing Macalester Theater?

I’m having a great time. It’s a very different institution than it was when I was going here. We had a much larger, much more diverse student body, and that part of it we took for granted while we were here. But there are different opportunities that are made available now. When I was here as a student, there was no one in the academia of theater who was of color. The direction I did for Steve’s play was called “No Place To Be Somebody,” which is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Gordon and the majority of the cast was African American and there were a bunch of us who were actually in the department. When we came and did work on the production, people asked, “where did you find these people?” And we said, “no, we’re here in the department”. It was fantastic because out of that show, we had Jack Reuler who runs Mixed Blood Theatre was in it, Faye Price who runs Pillsbury House was in it, Russell Curry who has an acting career going in LA, myself, and many others. From that particular piece, a lot of things got started; it was one of the shows that got many of us interested in theater. So you could say that Mac was very instrumental in placing the idea of multicultural theater in the scope of Jack Reuler’s vision. So it’s fun to be here, and I’ve got great students, great young actors and technicians.