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Narratives otherwise unheard

Darius Omar Williams’ interest in the arts and theatre began at a very early age. But the lack of quality black theatre in his native Mississippi made Williams’ childhood exploration of the arts, as he says, “a challenging journey.” Fortunately, Williams had some powerful mentors and the opportunity to develop his talents with the New Stage Theatre, the only professional theatre in Mississippi at the time.

Now an assistant professor of theatre and Africana studies at Lehigh, Williams had the opportunity last summer to fulfill a decade-old dream of providing “a face and a place for specifically Southern black narratives to not only be heard, but performed and staged in Mississippi.” Thanks to the Paul J. Franz, Jr. Pre-tenure Research Award, Williams traveled home to Mississippi to found and direct the 1st Annual Mississippi Black Theatre Festival.

“What I’m attempting to do is create a gravitational shift in the state of Mississippi where quality African American theatre is otherwise invisible,” says Williams. “I think it’s very important to invoke the memories, the personal histories, [and] the rich stories that live in Mississippi. These are narratives otherwise unheard that have not been staged in mainstream theatre institutions or mainstream African American theatre institutions. This was our opportunity to tell our stories.”

The ten-day festival—the first of its kind in Mississippi—featured local poets, playwrights, actors and dancers, as well as an ensemble of local artists performing Mississippi Born and Bred, a theatrical piece penned by Williams and inspired by storytelling sessions he facilitated with the cast.

“The response was incredible,” says Williams. A second festival is planned for 2015.

On March 27, Williams will bring a bit of Mississippi to Lehigh. A Faculty Research Grant from Lehigh’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies will allow the original cast of Mississippi Born and Bred to visit campus and perform a workshop stage reading of the play in the Black Box Theatre of the Zoellner Arts Center.

Williams’ current project is every tongue confess, an unpublished play by award-winning African American playwright Marcus Gardley. Every tongue confess revolves around the real-life serial burning of black churches in small-town Alabama in the mid-1990s. The play premiered in October 2010 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It was directed by Tony-Award winner Kenny Leon and starred Phylicia Rashad in the lead role.

Williams connected directly with Gardley to obtain permission to produce and direct every tongue confess at Lehigh. Williams’ approach to the play will “bring into close proximity African American spirituality and indigenous West African traditions and how they’re really not as different as we think they are.”

Lehigh’s production will feature a blended cast of Lehigh students and members of Easton’s Greater Shiloh Church. Greater Shiloh Church has an active drama ministry, and church member Karen Sims, director of information processing in Lehigh’s Office of Development, facilitated the involvement of her congregation.

“The meshing of community members with Lehigh students is something to be very excited for,” says Sims, who will play a lead role. “The opportunity to expand Lehigh’s reach when it comes to community outside South Bethlehem gives people in other areas of the Lehigh Valley a reason to take notice.”

The cast members from Greater Shiloh “are not just seasoned actors,” says Williams. “Many of them are just seasoned human people. What is so interesting is that the spiritual reality of every tongue confess is their reality as well. So to bring in that spiritual grounding is going to add a necessary layer of richness to the play.”

Every tongue confess opens at Lehigh on February 20 at the Diamond Theatre in the Zoellner Arts Center.

Story by Kelly Hochbein

Photos and video by Stephanie Veto

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Darius Omar Williams, assistant professor of theatre and Africana studies

Williams founded the Mississippi Black Theatre Festival and will direct "every tongue confess" at Lehigh.

Staff member Karen Sims singing

Staff member Karen Sims will play a lead role in "every tongue confess." Sims facilitated the involvement of members of the drama ministry of Easton's Greater Shiloh Church.

Becca Fryer '17 rehearses with Kiyaana Cox-Jones of Greater Shiloh Church.

Becca Fryer '17 rehearses with Kiyaana Cox-Jones of Greater Shiloh Church.