.Hitting the Spotlight

Founder of UCSC Black Troupe Made Big Changes

Donald Williams, who founded UCSC’s African American Theater Arts Troupe, got his start in theater in 7th grade when he played Michael Jackson in a school talent show.

 “My world came crashing through and I was like Wow! This is what I want to do. And I didn’t look back.”

Williams, 67, founded the UCSC African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) in 1991, a student-run organization meant to give a voice to the small African American population at the school. However, his story begins earlier when he founded his first theater group while attending Michigan State, called the Last Minute Hookup Theater Company

“It never felt like I was the right type, or color to be in any of the school’s productions, so rather than put myself through school and not practice my trade I started a theater troupe.”

Upon making his way to California, he lived in Los Angeles for some time, working in various theaters until moving to Santa Cruz to work for the UCSC theater department.

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“It was like deja vu, I had kids coming up to me saying “Can you help us, Mr. Williams? I want to act, but they’re not doing our kind of shows. I understood where they were coming from because I was there too. When it started I wasn’t getting paid and they weren’t getting credit. But these kids wanted to act.”

In 1991 AATAT was born, when it produced its first play Ceremonies of Dark Old Men it had 15 students, yet they sold out every show.

“The African American community came out en masse, they were happy to see plays that showcased their stories,” said Williams.  “Most of these students were not theater arts majors, chem, psych– you name it I had it.”

Over the years Williams built a community around AATAT, and having a place on campus where they could go to have their stories heard helped them to find a reason to stay and complete their majors.

“Soon enough I had more kids coming up to me saying they liked what we were doing, and before I knew it, Rainbow Theater was born.”

The Rainbow Theater serves as a platform for students to create multicultural productions and enhance cultural diversity on the college campus and the Santa Cruz community. Encompassing Poc, Latinx, and Asian American students who write, direct, produce, and act in their productions, Williams serves as the creative director.

“It has since grown to where I’m now getting paid for my services and students are getting credit. Rainbow Theater is now 31 years old, and AATAT is 34 years old. We continue to do amazing things in terms of outreach. We go to Seaside and LA bringing our shows to high schools to show them that they too can go to college.”

Rainbow Theater has since expanded from 25 students to 150 each year auditioning for roles. It does four student-written and directed shows in the quarter and has raised over $150,000 in scholarships. Over the years students with Rainbow Theater and AATAT have traveled to  showcase their work to high schools in Monterey, Seaside and LA as well as four states for Kennedy Center festivals.

“Some years our theater troupes travel to showcase our work, usually hundreds of high schoolers or entire communities come out to see us. It’s always been moving for me to see folks ask the actors for autographs. To have these students be blessed and looked upon, to see that they are somebody. These are true reflections that I can look at and say this is why I do what I do.”

“Quite naturally there are several students who have gone on to do big things, from folks working for FX TV or as professors to touring the country in one-man shows. All of them came out of this family with Rainbow Theater and AATAT. It’s empowering to see.”

Williams believes in the importance of Black History Month and celebrating black heritage because Black history is American history.

“When we think about American history, Black people have been in this country since the beginning. The White House was built by slaves, and the stoplight was invented by a Black man, (Garret Morrison). The blood transfusion was invented by a Black doctor (Charles Drew) who has saved countless lives, our history runs deep. Yet we don’t talk about it enough, so to have Black History Month and at least acknowledge some of it is extremely important.”

Promoted to senior professor at UCSC in 2023 Williams continues to create opportunities for students on and off campus, his goal is to empower as many students as possible to create positivity and tell their stories.

“The more we exchange how we express ourselves the more we learn to embrace each other. We soon find that we have more in common than we do separately. It’s about closing that gap. Let the arts rise and continue to be the teachers of this land.”

The African American Theater Arts troupe will be presenting Clydes by Lynn Nottage, a Tony-nominated story of formerly incarcerated people getting a second shot at life as kitchen staff will be running from Feb. 23 – March 3 on the UCSC Theater Arts main stage.

Rainbow Theater will be presenting four multicultural productions from May 26 to June 4 at the Stevenson Event Center at UCSC.

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