Don Williams founded UCSC’s African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) in 1991, and in three decades under his direction, the group has been a celebration of Black life, a historical record and a conduit for change.
“You know, at times I believe that theater is more real than life itself,” Williams says. “It’s a story that you have felt deep within you. You walk away with a different perspective. Now, you’ve become a part of a greater process, a collective of folks who are trying to create a change.”
AATAT is celebrating its 30th year this week with a new production of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play. Directed by Williams, the play will run March 4-9 via online streaming, and its cast has been signing onto Zoom four nights a week to rehearse.
“These young thespians, they definitely have the character down,” Williams says. “You know, they have the attitude. They have the spirit. And through their voice and through their sharpness and timing, I think people will find it pretty amusing to watch.”
Despite the troupe’s new, pandemic-driven online format, its outreach traditions live on. In their signature style, Williams and the actors will host two live cast talk-backs on March 4 and 9. The second of these Zoom conversations will be aimed specifically at the Central Coast community of Seaside.
“Every year we go there and perform on the Monterey Peninsula College main stage,” Williams says. “We’ve been doing that for well over 27 years. So we’re trying to keep our family bond of servicing that particular area, as well.”
AATAT’s dedication to collectivity means students nominate plays to be considered for each season’s program. This year they wanted to choose something fun that also has realness to it, Williams says.
Fourth-year student and chair of the Cultural Arts and Diversity Center (CAD) Cameron Rivers hopes School Girls will bring levity along with its drama. She says the team wanted a play that, on top of being a Black story, had elements of humor.
“Because in the environment we’re in right now, especially with Covid, everything seems so bleak, and kind of just out of our control,” Rivers says. “School Girls is a way to uplift our audiences as well.”
School Girls is set at the Aburi girls’ school in Ghana. Based on Mark Waters’ 2004 film Mean Girls, the play is indeed generally lighthearted, but Bioh’s script raises serious questions about womanhood and power. As the girls vy for the attention of a recruiter from the famous Miss Ghana pageant, they grapple with popularity, toxic beauty standards, social status and bullying.
At AATAT’s Feb. 20 Anniversary Gala, participants got a preview of the upcoming show. In the scene performed at the event, Aburi School Headmistress Francis (Britani McBride) and pageant recruiter Eloise (Odeosa Eguavoen) deliberate which student should attend the pageant. Eloise insists they should select a girl with a “commercial look,” a girl who “falls on the other end of the African skin spectrum.”
Actress and AATAT alumna Niketa Calame-Harris says she appreciates that the scene touches on colorism, especially how it gets weaponized against Black women.
“That’s not just an African issue. That’s an industry issue as well,” Calame-Harris says. “I mean, you could see loads of interviews with Viola Davis and other actors dealing with microaggressions in the industry. We’ve come a long way, but, you know, still have a long way to go in that aspect.”
Calame-Harris says that once when she was cast alongside another dark-skinned woman, producers questioned the decision, and seemed genuinely worried about casting two dark-skinned women. Nor are the prejudiced assumptions faced by Black actors limited to skin tone, she says—they extend even to hair texture.
“If you’re natural, then is that a certain kind of character? Versus if you have straight hair—is that taken seriously, like a lead actor? It’s all stuff that we’re slowly getting rid of,” Calame-Harris says.
Never shying away from a nuanced conversation, AATAT encourages audiences to engage with the subtleties in their performances and connect the themes to their own lives.
Throughout the gala, the participants’ enthusiasm and appreciation was palpable. Students quoted Williams’ famous motivational catchphrases, sung his praises and cheered each other on in the live chat.
Gala organizers even arranged a few surprises. Congressman Jimmy Panetta immortalized AATAT’s legacy by entering it into the Congressional Record. Actor and activist Danny Glover recorded a special message congratulating the members of AATAT for carving their own space when they did not see the richness of their cultures represented around them.
Dr. Ekua Omosupe captured the spirit of the evening with her poem titled “Community,” which celebrated progress and generations of storytellers who have channeled love through education. She finished with lines that particularly resonate with the AATAT story: “It is looking at who you are, who I am, sharing our stories, telling how far we have come, where we need to go, what we hope for. Can we get that together? Community, commune, communication, come in, come on into unity, make communion together, together in our strength, our weakness, vision, will, so be it.”
Giving With Hearts and Souls
AATAT’s commitment to community dates back to its inception.
Black students comprised less than 2% of UCSC’s population in the early 1990s. From his own experience in higher education, Williams knew that there was a need for representation, retention and solidarity among Black college students. As undergraduates at Michigan State University, Williams and other Black students didn’t see themselves, their communities or their histories represented in the school’s theater department.
In Scott Leiserson’s AATAT Documentary, Williams said it was like deja vu coming to Santa Cruz. In Michigan, his solution was to create the all-Black Last-Minute Hook Up Theater. Why not try again?
“AATAT is there to infuse, erupt or bring back to memory, you know, to what Black folks have done. And how we have given with our hearts and souls to this land called America, and how we truly are a part of America,” Williams tells me. “That’s the purpose of doing Black theatre. That’s the purpose of having an African American Theatre troupe on a campus.”
For years, the troupe persevered on next to no budget. Students couldn’t receive class credit for participating, and the program lacked a permanent space. But students just wanted to act, so they persisted.
It doesn’t matter if a play is performed on a university stage, at a community center, or in a church basement, Williams says—it’s always possible to get creative with costumes, sets and lighting. What matters is that an audience can come and be moved by storytelling.
But citing budget concerns, UCSC handed Williams a pink slip in 2004. Students staged protests advocating for the administration to rehire Williams and save his theater programs. In response to this passionate defense, UCSC established the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center to house AATAT and its multicultural parallel Rainbow Theatre.
“I see theater as a way for us to reexamine certain issues and certain stories that we might not know about,” says AATAT alumna Jazmine Logan. “We can learn history from a history textbook, but what’s missing in those history textbooks is a more sympathetic approach to really understanding the emotional context.”
Theater is immediate, says Calame-Harris. There are no distractions, the audience can’t change the channel or look at their phones. Attending live theater is a commitment to sharing space with those characters. All this, she says, is a way to break down barriers and develop mutual understanding.
All Our Belongings
Even 30 years later, AATAT remains the only theater group in the UC system dedicated to Black theater. The significance of this fact may be underlined by a 2011 study from the director of Institutional Research and Policy Studies at UCSC, which found that a sense of belonging is an important contributor to student retention.
“Without these programs, I don’t know if the retention and graduation rates would be as high,” says Calame-Harris. “So it’s not only spreading cultural awareness for the campus, but it’s also maintaining their diverse population.”
Jazmine Logan, who graduated from UCSC in 2019, says the familial culture of AATAT makes students feel less alone on campus.. AATAT provides a welcoming, family-oriented space for Black students to share experiences and use their passion for theater to advocate for social justice, she says.
Logan was inspired to join AATAT after attending Williams’ African American Theatre History class. She says it was the first time she had been in a classroom with an African American professor.
“It wasn’t until I joined AATAT that I really understood the appreciation and the importance of engaging with African American theater,” Logan says. “So AATAT was where my love for African American theater, and my appreciation for it, and my continued mission to still fight for Black theater, took root.”
The high cost of attending university is another roadblock to retention, so Williams and his students created the African American Scholarship Fund. The fund distributes four different scholarships to recognize diverse skills and accomplishments. Since 1993, the troupe has raised over $100,000 in annual funding for its members.
At AATAT’s 30th anniversary gala, interim Dean of the Arts Ted Warburton referenced UCSC’s first principle of community. He said the university embraces diversity in all its forms and strives for an inclusive community.
“As a campus, we have not always risen to meet that aspirational goal,” Warburton said. “But we know one person and one student organization who have embodied that principle for 30 years: Don Williams and his AATAT family.”
AATAT wants everyone to be able to access Black theater, not just audiences on campus. The group’s outreach program has been going almost as long as the troupe itself.
“We’ll go into three different high schools. And we’ll do outreach where we’re telling personal testimonies, doing theater games, passing out swag, [saying] ‘We want you to think about higher education. There’s a place for you here,’” Williams says.
Recruitment doesn’t end once students get to college—AATAT’s alumni network far and wide. Often, students are able to break into professional spaces by networking through the AATAT family.
While forging their own paths in the arts, Calame-Harris and Logan serve on the AATAT Alumni Advisory Board. Both credit Williams and the community he built for inspiring their continued dedication to theater.
Logan is now in her final year at San Francisco State University completing a Master of Arts in Theater. She reflects AATAT’s mission to increase African American representation through her thesis, which analyzes African theater curricula in the UC and CSU systems. She is particularly interested in Yoruba theater. AATAT also connected Logan to the Black Theater Network conference, where she was named a S. Randolph Edmonds Young Scholar in July 2020.
Even for Logan, who eats, sleeps and breathes theater, AATAT’s 2021 program is a chance to see something new.
“That’s what’s so great about AATAT,” she says. “You get to learn more about African American theater plays that you don’t get introduced to in your theater history classes.”
Like most students, Calame-Harris got her start with AATAT after a chance encounter with an enthusiastic Williams. Most alumni have the same story, she says.
“He jumped out of one of his trucks and said, ‘Hey you! Are you interested in theater?’” Calame-Harris recalls. “He’s been in my life ever since.”
But unlike the majority of AATAT members, Calame-Harris had a long history of performing before arriving at university. She even had her Screen Actors Guild card before entering high school. As a child actor, she voiced Young Nala in the original Lion King film, appeared in commercials and played Chris Rock’s younger sister in his 1992 film CB4.
She credits the alumni network with helping her break into the industry after college. After graduating, Calame-Harris says she hit up Adilah Barnes, founder of the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival, to ask if she needed an intern.Thus began Calame-Harris’s summer job at the festival.
Now Calame-Harris runs In Motion, a program she designed to mentor up-and-coming actors. She continues to book roles in TV and film, and recently hosted a panel on Women in Entertainment for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
She says Williams’ values inspire her own teaching method. Involving students in their education gives them agency and teaches them the power of collaboration, while combining everyone’s unique skills and perspectives creates a better result, she says.
Every aspect of his productions reflects a unified vision. In group auditions, it’s clear that jealous competition has no place in AATAT. Celebrating everyone is a lesson in kindness and collectivity. Every hopeful cast member can situate themselves within the play’s context and feel like part of the team.
“Part of my mission and drive is about creating a harmonious community,” says Williams. “Our goal is to do a play. But there’s a greater goal. And that is to create community, to create an atmosphere where one can actually come in and be safe.”
It’s unlikely one could spend ten minutes at an AATAT event without hearing reference to Williams’ famous mantra “Uplift others higher than yourself.” Logan says it’s become her mantra as well—she always thinks of how she can use her talents to help others. Calame-Harris uses the phrase in her email signature.
People who get a chance to be in AATAT and Rainbow come into the real world with a different mind set, Calame-Harris says. And with 30 years of graduates spreading Williams’ gospel, change is inevitable.
“I believe that you’ve never arrived to the point where you can’t learn something from someone. And when you do have extra knowledge, then reach back and bring other people up with you,” Calame-Harris says. “[Williams] teaches in that kind of way. That is infectious, and spreads to the people who work with him. And I think that’s a great quality to have in any industry.”
AATAT’s presentation of Jocelyn Bioh’s ‘School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play’ will be available online March 4-9. To RSVP for a YouTube link, visit cadrc.org/aatat-2021-production.html.