Williams, Samm-Art 1946–
Samm-Art Williams 1946–
Samm-Art Williams is a prolific author of works for the stage and television. His most notable play is Home, a gentle and insightful comedy/drama which, after rave reviews Off-Broadway in 1979, moved to Broadway in 1980 where it received a similarly enthusiastic reception. “Williams is a prose poet with a lavish sense of humor,” wrote T.E. Kalem of Time in a review of the Broadway production of Home. Williams’ writings have tackled a variety of subjects including African American life in rural and urban contemporary settings, the plight of abandoned slaves during the Civil War, political upheaval on a Caribbean island, and the legacy of nineteenth century minstrel entertainers.
Although most of Williams’ works have focused on African American characters, and many of his plays have premiered at the Negro Ensemble Company, Williams feels that black writers should not limit their material to black-oriented stories. “I believe that black writers are going to have to become objective and realize that we do not have to write about just black situations. We don’t want to isolate ourselves. I’m sure ninety percent of the plays I’m going to write will be black plays because of my experience. I’m a black man. But if the urge hits me and I think I can write an objective play about anybody else, any other ethnic group in this world, I’ll do it and it won’t be garbage; it’ll come from somewhere,” Williams told C. Gerald Fraser of the New York Times.
Williams strives to avoid didacticism in his work and presents material in which the lines between good and bad are not clearly marked out. “I try to shy away from making statements-I just write what I feel as an individual. Whatever audiences take away, fine…I think (as a playwright) you have to find some redeeming feature in mankind, in order to give your characters dimension. If you feel jaded, that all people are bad, I don’t think you can write. We’re a mixture of a lot of things, good and bad. If an audience goes in and they think you’ve already made your statement-’This character is bad; That’s the direction he’s going’—why should they stay and watch it?” Williams explained to Janice Arratov of the Los Angeles Times.
Williams was born Samuel Arthur Williams in Burgaw, North Carolina, a small town northwest of Wilmington. An only child whose parents separated when he was four years old, Williams was brought up by his mother, Valdosia, and by numerous extended family members who made up a significant portion of Burgaw’s population. He credits his mother, a teacher of English and drama at the local high school, with giving him an interest in literature. Williams told Clarke Taylor of the Los Angeles Times that his mother “made me read everything from Langston Hughes to Edgar Allan Poe” adding that “I think (Poe’s)The Raven was my greatest influence—in seeing this bird, I saw what a great thing it was to be able to work on a person’s mind with words.”
At a Glance…
Born Samuel Arthur Williams on January 20, 1946 in Burgaw, NC; son of Samuel and Valdosia (a teacher) Williams. Education: Morgan State Univ., B. A. political science/psychology, 1968.
Career: Playwright and actor. Stage acting includes appearances with the Freedom Theatre, Philadelphia, PA, 1968-73; the Negro Ensemble Company, New York City, in the plays Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide, 1974;The Brownsville Raid, 1976;Black Body Blues, 1978;Old Phantoms, 1979;Plays from Africa, 1979; and Big City Blues, 1980. Other New York stage appearances include Black Jesus, 1973. Film appearances include Dressed to Kill, 1980;Blood Simple, 1984. Television appearances include Cook and Peary: The Race to the Pole, TV film, 1983;The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1986;The New Mike Hammer, CBS, 1986; and Frank’s Place, CBS, 1987; also appeared in television commercials. Work as a playwright includes Welcome to Black River, 1975, A Love Play, 1976, The Coming, 1976; Brass Birds Don’t Sing, 1978;Home, 1979, Eyes of the American, 1985; “Eve of the Trial” in Orchards, 1986;Cork, 1986. Author of the book for the musical Bojangles, 1985, and contributor to the book for the musical Sophisticated Ladies, 1981. Writing for television includes story editing and scriptwriting for the television series’Frank’s Place, CBS, 1987-88, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 1990s.
Awards: John Gassner Playwriting Award from the Outer Critics’ Circle for Home, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts playwriting fellowship, 1984.
Member: Actor’s Equity, Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild of America, and the Dramatists Guild.
Addresses: Agent —William Morris Agency, Inc., 151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Williams’ strapping physique (he stands six feet, six inches tall) led many to believe his best bet for success was through sports. Although he played some basketball and boxed a little, Williams found that his personality was not conducive to athletics. “I used to write poetry when I was in high school. I used to write love poems to my girl friends and so forth. And I’ve always been a romantic person. I’ve never tried to hide that. I never used to hide my sensitiveness,” Williams told the New York Times.
Following graduation from C.F. Pope High School in 1964, Williams enrolled at Morgan State University, a traditionally black college in Baltimore. He found the atmosphere at Morgan State at odds with his artistic sensibility. Many of his fellow students were primarily interested in taking advantage of the expanding opportunities for blacks in lucrative professions such as medicine and law. Williams majored in political science and psychology with vague thoughts of becoming a lawyer. However, his childhood dream of becoming a playwright prevailed. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1968 Williams moved to Philadelphia, where he supported himself as a salesman while working in his off-hours with the Freedom Theatre. Although he ultimately wanted to live in New York City, Williams found that his rural Southern upbringing made the transition to an urban environment difficult. “I was intimidated, and I wanted to work out in my mind what the next step should be,” he related to the Los Angeles Times. The difficulties faced by southern blacks migrating to northern cities is a theme that crops up frequently in Williams’ writings. Williams made his contribution to the Freedom Theatre primarily as an actor, although he continued to write during his spare time.
In 1973, Williams finally moved to New York City. After a few months of working odd jobs, he found employment acting in television commercials and in the Off-Broadway play Black Jesus. “I actually came to New York with the intention of becoming a writer, but I knew that I would have to do some acting to pay the rent,” Williams told Trudier Harris of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. In 1974, Williams began his association with the Negro Ensemble Company when he was cast in the play Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide. Williams made his New York debut as a playwright in 1975 when his play, Welcome to Black River, was produced by the playwright’s workshop at the Negro Ensemble. The play examined the tensions within a family of sharecroppers in North Carolina during the 1950s. “Its rawness is one of its assets. It is packed with honest emotion and moral fervor…Mr. Williams is a talented man,” wrote Mel Gussow of the New York Times.
Williams wrote several other plays, including A Love Play, which was produced by the Negro Ensemble inl976. He also wrote The Coming and Do Unto Others, both of which were staged at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn in 1976. Perhaps the most ambitious of his plays was Brass Birds Don’t Sing, which told the story of two Polish sisters rescued from the Nazi Lebensborn (breeding) program. The two sisters find it difficult to come to terms with their nightmarish memories as they try to create a new life for themselves in the United States. The play exemplifies Williams’ philosophy that black writers do not have to write only about black issues. “At first I was a little leery of it. Then I decided a writer has to be objective and that’s what I wanted to write about. So I did. I was surprised that some folks didn’t accept the fact that a black writer would do that. But then the majority of them did, and that was a refreshing moment. I don’t want to force myself into a box,” Williams told the New York Times.
It was the play Home that established Williams as an important new voice in theatre. First produced by the Negro Ensemble Company in December of 1979, Home tells the story of Cephus Miles, a young farmer in fictitious Cross Roads, North Carolina who is content to work his land, swap stories with his neighbors, and continue living in the manner of his forebears. Cephus’ life is turned upside down when his girlfriend leaves him for a more ambitious suitor and he is drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. Refusing to serve in Vietnam for moral reasons, Cephus spends five years in jail. Unable to return to his farm, which has been lost to unpaid taxes, Cephus heads north to an unnamed “very, very large American city.” After being fired from his job on account of his past imprisonment, he drifts into drugs and life on Skid Row. The news that his farm has been recovered brings Cephus back home to Cross Roads, where he is reunited with his girlfriend and with the land.
Home was well-received by many theatre critcs. “Mr. Williams is clearly in love with words, which in his hands become a rolling caravan of images. Occasionally he stops for rhyming interludes…. More often, with his gift for local language, Mr. Williams seems closer to the spirit of Mark Twain. If Twain were black and from North Carolina, he might have written like Samm-Art Williams…Home is an uplifting folk ballad about the pure in heart. Welcome Home,” wrote Gussow in the New York Times. Retaining its original cast, Home moved to the Cort Theater on Broadway in May of 1980. In his review of the Broadway production, Brendan Gill of the New Yorker called Home “an extended lyric, celebrating with tenderness and gusto the life of a man named Cephus Miles and, through him, the lives of all the rest of us.” Home was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play of the 1979-80 season, but lost the award to Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God.
Williams was inspired to write Home while riding a Greyhound bus to North Carolina in 1976. “There was nothing on that bus but black people going South at Christmastime. That’s where the whole germ started. I began to look at those people. They were drinking. They were happy. They were glad to be going back. But you could see a whole lot of distress. And you knew what they had to come back North to,” Williams told the New York Times. He added that his objective in writing Home was to create “a nice, simple, warm play…a play that an audience could sort of wrap its arms around and embrace…I was pleased that people could accept just a simple play about love and romance and simple earth folk.” Since its premiere in 1979, Home has been produced frequently at regional and repertory theaters. “Home is one of those plays you watch with the heart more than the head…(an) earthy, funny, moving play…a solid piece of dramatic storytelling,” wrote Dan Hulbert of the Altanta Journal-Constitution.
Following the success of Home, Williams continued to write. Included among his later plays are The Sixteenth Round (1980), the story of a prizefighter crazed with guilt after killing another boxer in the ring; Eyes of the American (1985), a tale of friendship between two men destroyed by their pursuit of political power in a Caribbean nation; and In My Father’s House (1996), about tensions between a husband and wife and their two adult sons in Los Angeles during the riots of 1992. Williams joined fellow playwrights David Mamet, John Guare, Wendy Wasserstein, Maria Irene Fornes, Michael Weller, and Spaulding Gray in the creation of Orchards, a staging of seven stories by Anton Chekhov produced by the Acting Company of New York City in 1985. Williams adapted Chekhov’s story “Eve of the Trial,” about a defendant who unknowingly meets his judge on the day before his trial. “What I like about Chekhov is that, like Shakespeare, there’s lots of humor. I always go for that stuff first…1 locked into this the minute I read it, because it’s set in an inn at a crossroads, and I know three or four roadhouses just like that in North Carolina,” Williams told Don Shewey of the New York Times.
In his 1986 play Cork, Williams explored the changing role of the black artist in American society. In the play a contemporary black actor/playwright, who has just triumphed in a play of his own devising, is visited in his dressing room by the ghost of a nineteenth century black minstrel show performer. The title of the play refers to the burnt cork that minstrels employed to darken their faces into a caricature.” I have a tremendous respect for the minstrels because they paved the way for black entertainers today. Minstrelsy was wrong. But black minstrels were talented performers, and we have turned our backs on them and the conditions in which they had to perform… The play is my way of saying ‘Thank you,’” Williams told Thomas Morgan of the New York Times.
Significant among Williams’ television writing credits is Charlotte Forten’s Mission: Experiment in Freedom, a docudrama starring Melba Moore that was presented on PBS’s American Playhouse in 1985. The story took place during the Civil War on the Union-occupied Sea Islands, which are located off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The main character, Charlotte Forten, was an educated black woman from Philadelphia who came to the Sea Islands to introduce the concept of freedom to the thousands of abandoned slaves living there. In Williams’ adaptation of the story, the fact that Forten is black does not automatically earn her the trust of the Sea Islands inhabitants. “Charlotte Forten’s story is about clash. It’s about the conflict and interaction of religious, military, moral and economic forces all at once, with Charlotte smack in the middle. But the most amazing fact is almost nobody has heard of her,” Williams told Steve Lawson of the New York Times. Before writing the script, Williams spent time on the Sea Islands. “I woke up my first morning there and heard bagpipes playing in the black church. That’s how foreign the whole experience was,” Williams said to Lawson. In addition to Charlotte Forten’s Mission, Williams has served as a story editor and scriptwriter for two television sitcoms, Frank’s Place and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
In order to finance his writing career, Williams has worked as an actor in television, films, and plays. “Early on, I always used acting as a training ground for my writing so that I wouldn’t make myself look like a fool when I put it on paper. Besides, when the rent is due, the rent is due, it doesn’t matter where it comes from,” Williams told Barbara Pepe of USA Today. Although he regards acting as a secondary occupation, Williams has built up a solid list of performing credits. In Leslie Lee’s play The First Breeze of Summer, a Negro Ensemble production which went to Broadway in 1975, Williams portrayed a coalminer turned preacher. Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote that Williams performed with “great conviction,” and called the entire ensemble “American acting at its best.” Notable among Williams’ television appearances are his role as Arctic explorer Matthew Henson in the 1983 television film Cook and Peary: The Race to the Pole and his portrayal of the runaway slave Jim in a 1986 television adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Williams told USA Today, “Personally, I look at the Jims of the world as heroes. The Jims ran for their lives so I wouldn’t have to run for mine. I look at them from a sense of pride. I’m not ashamed of knowing that three generations ago my family were slaves.”
Contemporary Authors, Volume 123. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.
Harris, Trudier. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 31, 1997, p. P8.
Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1985, sect. 6, pp. 1, 18; August 12, 1986, sect. 6, p. 1, 9.
New Yorker, May 19, 1980, p. 105.
New York Times, May 22, 1975, p. 35; July 8, 1975, p. 36; December 20, 1979, p. C12; January 6, 1980, sect. 2, p. 1; February 24, 1980, sect. 2, p. 4; March 14, 1980, p. C3; March 16, 1980, p. D5; May 8, 1980, sect. 3, p. 20; June 12, 1980, p. 28; May 2, 1982, sect. 11, p. 10; May 27, 1984, sect. 23, p. 6; February 24, 1985; August 25, 1985, sect. 2, p. 4; October 29, 1985, p. C12; December 9, 1986, p. C21; December 27, 1986, p. 11; July 4, 1996, p. C16; June 18, 1997, p. C18.
Time, May 19, 1980, p. 52.
USA Today, February 10, 1986, p. D3.
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