At a recent “Two Trains Running” rehearsal at Marin Theatre Company, director Dawn Monique Williams led with conspiratorial joy.
Oakland theater director Dawn Monique Williams has two tattoos taken from Shakespeare. One is the beloved “Twelfth Night” opening line: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Another is the motto from Shakespeare’s family crest, which translates to “Not without right.”
It took Shakespeare’s family a long time to get a crest, which elevated its status, Williams told The Chronicle earlier this year, during rehearsals for Aurora Theatre Company’s “The Incrementalist.” She speculates that, to Shakespeare, the motto meant, “I have the dignity, the standing, the wealth, everything that a gentleman should have to bear a coat of arms.”
Williams then reinterpreted the motto for herself: “Everything that we say the Western theater is, everything within the English-speaking world, is my inheritance. As somebody who is a descendant of enslaved Africans in this country, I have a right to every single thing that we would say is American.” She extends that claim to Western civilization more broadly, and then more particularly: “I have a right to Shakespeare.”
The world is starting to recognize that right. This year, Williams’ schedule is crammed with projects, including co-directing Marcus Gardley’s “Lear” at California Shakespeare Theater, and now directing August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” which runs Nov. 25-Dec. 18 at Marin Theatre Company.
She has a few theories about why her career has taken off. One is simply that she works hard, makes good theater and earns collaborators’ respect and affection. “I will actually just give a little credit to myself,” Williams, 44, said. The other theory involves the racial reckoning of 2020. The document “We See You, White American Theater” demanding changes in theater had come out, “and people had to start getting their binders full of X, Y and Z together,” she said. “I happen to be a queer Black woman, so I think I help tick some boxes for people that are looking to tick boxes.”
If she sounds resigned and pragmatic, she wasn’t always that way.
In 2011, after she’d completed two theater master’s degrees, first from San Francisco State University, then from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she assumed that theater leaders simply didn’t know that artists of color wanted to direct classics.
“I just have to let them know that I’m out here,” she recalls thinking at the time. “Then I had a moment where I was like, no, they don’t care. They know that we’re here, and they don’t want us.”
So as she’s finally gotten more work, she’s made her peace with the reasons why, since she knows she’s always deserved it.
“It’d be different if I thought I was faking it,” she said. “Shame on them for being asleep so long.”
At a recent “Two Trains” rehearsal at Marin Theatre Company, it’s clear that her rehearsal room is not hierarchical. She led her cast, not with a raised voice or with an implicit demand for deference, but with an almost conspiratorial sense of joy. She might break into a little song to make fun of herself. Or she and actor Sam Jackson, who’s in her third Williams production this year, might break into cartoon voices at the end of a director’s note, riffing on a character’s absurdities.
“She is the biggest fan of the actor,” Jackson said. “She can take that step back from micromanaging characters to allowing the actors she’s cast to form bonds themselves and create the world that they want to see.”
In “Two Trains,” which is part of Wilson’s epic Century Cycle of 10 plays, one for each decade of Black life in the 20th century, it’s 1969, and a restaurateur owner named Memphis (Lamont Thompson) knows city officials in Pittsburgh want to buy his property and demolish his building. “I ain’t taking a penny less than $25,000,” he repeatedly says.
Williams is drawn to Wilson for his poetry, the way his realism is supernatural while still being real, the way his plays assert, as she put it, that “the Black experience contains multitudes.”
“I’ve heard a native storyteller say that the best way to do a land acknowledgment is to tell the story of the land you’re on,” Williams went on. For her, that’s precisely what Wilson did with his native Hill District in Pittsburgh, where almost all his plays are set.
Williams calls “Two Trains” the “pivot play” in the Century Cycle.
“If you look at the canon up to ‘Fences,’ (Wilson) is really looking at a successful Black community,” she said. “There’s Black wealth. There’s Black middle class. Then ‘Two Trains’ is when he really pivots to this idea of urban renewal, of disenfranchisement, of what it means for these steel mill jobs to shut down, or what racial tensions look like on the street in terms of protest.”
When Memphis talks about his minimum price, the dramatic irony is almost physically painful. We have “2022 eyes,” Williams said. “We know where this is headed. We know because we’re living in the results of what happens.“
“It’s the whole running thesis of the American drama: Don’t give up the land,” she added. “Clearly, as Americans, we are really wrestling with our relationship to land and land ownership.”
Williams feels that impetus now in her own life. During the pandemic, she and her three adult siblings all moved back into their childhood East Oakland home with their mom.
“We hold on to to this house in a neighborhood that doesn’t always feel safe and there’s high crime, because this is all we have,” Williams said. “Sometimes my mom’s like, ‘Maybe we should sell and buy somewhere else.’ And I’m like, ‘If you do, you’ll never get it back.’”
It’s the same message she wants to tell Memphis: “It doesn’t matter what they offer you to sell. Don’t sell.”
“Two Trains Running”: Written by August Wilson. Directed by Dawn Monique Williams. Nov. 25-Dec. 18. $25-$65. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415-388-5208. www.marintheatre.org
Full article by Lily Janiak for The San Francisco Chronicle available here.