Dawn Monique Williams is one of many directors who arrived at a crossroads when it came to creating fresh art with the disappearance of live productions. With theatres shut down since March of 2020, directors have found new ways to tell stories that may not have connected to their formal training.
Williams, 42, is Bay Area bred, loaded with insight and curiosity, rooted in the East Bay. Aside from a few detours that took her to Massachusetts for graduate school and Ashland, Oregon for six years as an Oregon Shakespeare Festival resident artist, Berkeley was the grow up spot and Oakland is home. She now serves as associate artistic director at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley.
Her latest directing project is Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” adapted by Lydia R. Diamond. The production that is now streaming online through May 21, which was scheduled for a full production, moved to a radio format due to COVID-19. But Williams, who carries a passion for plays that feature heightened language, found a silver lining in producing a show through a medium that focuses on a singular sense.
In this interview, Williams shares her thoughts on how everyone can support and advocate for artists of color, her own personal journey learning about privilege through skin tone and what it means to be triumphant as Black women. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
David John Chávez: What is your personal history with “The Bluest Eye” or just Toni Morrison in general?
Dawn Monique Williams: If I go all the way back to high school, Toni Morrison was one of the only authors of color I was exposed to in my American literature class – I had to read “Sula” in high school. Around that time, the film “Beloved” with Oprah Winfrey came out, so that was sort of my second taste of her and then from there I started engaging with some of her other works. I took a lot of Black studies classes in college and was exposed to more of her work. So yeah, I sort of have a long, long history with Toni Morrison in that regard.
As far as the show you are directing, theatre people are incredibly adaptable at working with new styles or new ways to do things. But this is very different – maybe as a stage director, you’d be working a lot more with tableaus and staging, but now you’re diving into a whole new genre that you probably haven’t spent a lot of time with. What have been the challenges of working on a radio play such as this one?
One of the things is that, because this was written as a stage adaptation and we originally programmed it as a live theatrical event, there is just that little bit of grief or sadness at knowing that we won’t be in the space and the actors won’t be able to fully physically embody this text radius, because this adaptation is so creative. But that’s also bittersweet because in doing the audio drama this way, it does allow us to really focus on the language and text to find ways to take all of the things that we would have explored on our feet in our bodies and use the voice as a primary tool. We can use sound and silence as a tool for the storytelling. That is a fun exploration. Doing it this way gave each of the five actors an opportunity to stretch their range vocally and play different emotional tenors, to sort of lean into their skill sets as voice actors. So that part was really fun.
Generally speaking, nowadays, you’re not going to get 15 people together in a room listening to the same thing. That would be cool to do, but more than likely people will be putting this in their earbuds and digging into it that way, really feeling a personal touch. Even though it’s a disappointment not being in a theatre, do you think about how exciting it can be to really bring forth a personal experience for each and every listener?
Absolutely! One of the things we sort of pride ourselves on at Aurora, because our space is so intimate, we find opportunities for detailed and nuanced acting. For exactly the reason you state, that because it’s an audio drama, this is the most intimate because it’s for an audience of one. Maybe a few people will listen together, but I imagine most people will stick it in their ear. It allows us to create that intimacy and take the audience on a journey. Given that it was a novel adapted for the stage, the material already lifts itself to a more privatized journey, because we mostly experience novels privately.
“The Bluest Eye” is really heavy content and so much trauma. So many crushing circumstances happen, but you’ve said it’s also a story of triumph. As a director, how do you approach finding, even in plays so heavy, the humor and joy in this kind of story?
As a director. I feel responsible for the culture of a room, virtual or otherwise, and I like to lead from a place of joy, love and wonder, I like for there to be liberty in the work and find moments of play just as a group before we even dig into whatever the material may be. So already, it was important for me in just setting the culture of the room that we built community. There’s always going to be personality differences and that’s always going to come with challenges, but for the most part this was a room full of people that had deep respect and admiration for one another.
What are some other ways you actively work to access the play’s triumphant components?
In so many ways any story that is telling the experience of Black women and girls is a story of triumph, because we are here. And I think often about that Malcolm X quote, “The most disrespected person in America is a Black woman.” I think of the resiliency of Black women. Toni Morrison writing the novel is a triumph. Lydia R. Diamond, doing a stage adaptation that somebody was invested enough to want, that’s a triumph,
The year 2020 being the 50th anniversary of that novel is a triumph. So that’s why, you know, you hear me say in other materials we’ve put together that I think it’s a story of triumph, even though there’s much darkness and much heartbreak. It’s hard to go into these stories that remind us that that women are often rendered invisible, especially women of color. Sex crimes are so prevalent against women, it is hard to revisit that place.
One of the themes of the play is about the perception of beauty based on skin color. There is a barrage of whiteness that Pecola, Freida and Mrs. Breedlove envy, and Pecola carries a belief that her life would be so much easier if she had white skin and blue eyes. I even know for myself as a kid that I would always get so dark in the summer and hated it. Do you have any personal experiences as a young Black girl feeling inferior when it came to skin tone, whether that’s your own vision of yourself or what you were conditioned to believe from the society you lived in? How did that help you empathize with these characters and allow you to assist the translation to your actors?
It runs very, very, very deep for me because I am a fair-skinned Black woman and the child of a white mother. I understood very early in life that I was not white, even though I didn’t have, you know like cognitive reasoning around that. I just recognized that I don’t look like my mom, and the things that my mom could do I could not do. My hair is not like my mom’s and I saw my mom putting on this makeup. When I played with her makeup it looked ridiculous.
It’s sort of the opposite for me. While you sort of resented getting darker, I yearned for it. I resented being fair-skinned because it put me in this sort of liminal space of like not being Black enough for this or not being white enough for that, and I always wanted to be darker. Now I recognize how skin privilege works and anti-Blackness is a global phenomenon. It is so entrenched in us that we worry about our skin color, and when the winter comes, it makes us either thankful or really sad.
Last May, we all saw what happened in Minneapolis and George Floyd, and we’ve seen similar reactions historically from many white institutions such as theatre, hearing that change is coming but doesn’t always. There were lots of statements and movements to support racial injustice in 2020, and deep conversations about what theatre should look like when we return to spaces as artists and audience members. Well, we are having more tangible conversations about when we can return to live theatre. How has your approach to being a theatre maker changed since March of 2020 and everything that took place? How do you take everything you’ve experienced, the frustration and maybe even the inspiration, and compartmentalize it to tell this story in the way you want to tell it?
The show was planned before COVID, before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered. Certainly, there’s been an ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. For me, it’s been central to my artist’s mission to amplify voices of women and writers of color, so that’s been true for a long time. But what happened when all of this, I was like, I don’t know, maybe “The Bluest Eye” isn’t the story for this moment because of the trauma. Everybody like Netflix and Hulu were curating all these Black stories and all of it was trauma. Trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma. And I was like, where’s the joy? Where’s the love, the Black romance, Black rom-coms?
I said, well yeah, there’s trauma in the story, but like we talked about, there’s also joy. And the thing is, the life of a Black woman is complex. It’s not all one thing. Is there sadness? Is there joy? Yes. There’s love, romance, sisterhood, friendship, there’s sometimes motherhood and the experience of being a daughter. And, yes, there’s sometimes sexual violence. It’s complex, it’s not all just one thing. And so, it felt more important than ever to come back and revisit this story and be reminded of the complexity of what it means to be Black woman coming of age.
What have you discovered about the role of storytelling in the middle of critical social movements?
I remember in 2014 when the George Zimmerman verdict came out. I thought, I just make believe, that’s all, that’s what my job is. I’m not a lawyer and I asked myself, what am I really doing? I really wrestled with myself. Maybe theatre is just frivolous for the privileged elite and it’s not doing the work. But then I had a sort of epiphany moment, where I was like, this is how I do the work. We all need stories – every movement has stories. Every protest, every regime change, everything like that is who we are as humans. Our brains are designed to make meaning in our cultural order, artifacts are the site of that. So now for me, we come to moments like this, these social movements. I feel like it’s more important than ever for me to bear down into the storytelling, and then to be more judicious in the stories I want to tell and the voices I want to amplify because that is the gift I have to give.
I don’t have a law degree. I’m a storyteller. I’m an artist. I’m a culture maker. And when our children’s children’s children look back on this time, they will have to know our story is the cultural artifacts that will be left to them.
There is an incredible quote from Anna Julia Cooper I wanted to ask you about. She said, “Only the Black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” As a Black woman, as an artist, and as someone who’s telling this story that is focused primarily on Black women, who do you believe has the responsibility to tell and advocate for stories that are not just rooted in trauma, but rooted in joy? Who should take it on as their personal responsibility to advocate for these stories, characters and human beings?
I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to advocate for these stories, I think it is everyone’s responsibility to protect, advocate and support Black women. In advocating for and protecting Black women and amplifying the voices of Black women, we have a job to do, to create space, so that Black women can tell their own stories in their own voices on their own terms. That is what sometimes becomes a sort of tricky slippery slope.
I love the quote that you read so much, because I think we have to let Black women tell their stories on their terms, which means they might not give you full disclosure and want to litigate their position with you, or feel the need to explain themselves on every single thing.
The job of advocating and creating space is on all of us. A great example is Aurora, which is a legacy white institution, a white led institution and as far as my math can tell, they’ve not done an all Black cast play before. So they created the space for me and that cast to have a Black space, which we could use to build affinity and share open and honestly with one another without any white gaze and really be together.
We know how the theatre business works – leadership is going to come in at some point, notes will be made and given, which is part of the process. But there was space created, and that’s how you can advocate for Black women. You can say, I’ve hired a Black woman to be a lead artist on this project. I’m going to trust her to do that. I’m going to check in with her relative to the support she needs, but I’m not going to micromanage or overstep in that situation. I’m going to let them have that space to create the culture of the room, the way they need to tell this story.
You spoke earlier about Black joy. What does Black joy mean to you?
The definition I give right now could be different in an hour from now, and could be different tomorrow morning. For me, Black joy is a deep belly laugh, a deep release that allows freedom to take up space in your body. It’s living in a high vibration and living fully out loud.
WHAT TO KNOW
Aurora Theatre Company presents “The Bluest Eye”
Adapted by Lydia R. Diamond
Based on the novel by Toni Morrison
Directed by Dawn Monique Williams
Through May 21
All tickets $25
For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org
Aurora Theatre Company – 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704