By Dwight Hobbes
Regina Marie Williams’ ascent to prominence in Twin Cities theater has been one of peerless artistry rightfully acclaimed. It began inconspicuously enough with a stint featured in Mixed Blood Theatre’s popular vehicle, Syl Jones’ Daughters of Africa. Spending requisite time in the trenches, Williams kept herself in work, including a minor role in The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammie Louise and Safreeta Mae at Penumbra Theatre.
A breakout performance opposite James Craven in Gus Edwards’ Louie and Ophelia at Penumbra set her apart from proverbial pack. That was followed by an opportunity to both act and sing in Dinah Was, again at Penumbra, depicting the life of Dinah Washington. Her stormy portrayal of the fiery Washington and Williams’ phenomenal singing resonated so profoundly the show had to be held over. She has been the first lady of Twin Cities theater ever since.
This past season, she triumphed at Mixed Blood in Lynn Nottage’s powerhouse drama Ruined. In September, she was honored for it with an Ivey Award for acting. After returning to Mixed Blood for A Cool Drink a Water, the world-class performer currently is in Gee’s Bend at Park Square Theatre.
Between shows and rehearsals, Williams (RMW) gave the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder an interview by email.
MSR: Just how long have you been at this?
RMW: My first professional job was in 1981 as Count von Count in the Sesame Street Live touring show. It is where I got my Actors’ Equity card.
MSR: What moved you to take on performing as a profession?
RMW: I have always wanted to perform. I mimicked the people on the soap operas. I walked, sang, danced, recited around my house from the time I can remember. I was with Sesame Street for several years. I took a break and went back to L.A. and did not get enough work, so I went back on the road. It became tiresome.
I didn’t get work here immediately. It took several years. It was 1992 when I decided to give theater my full attention. Not until 1995 or ’99 was I able to do it full time without supplementing with other types of work.
MSR: How did you prepare for the role of Mama Nadi in Ruined?
RMW: The role of Mama Nadi was a difficult one. We did the regular research of the environment, saw videos, looked at photos. Ultimately the director, Aditi Kapil, gently and artfully chiseled away at refinements, physical, gestures, and vocal [style] until Regina Marie Williams fell away and this rough, raw, complicated beauty emerged.
My smiles were limited, and tears were not in Mama Nadi’s vocabulary.
It took the entire cast at least a half hour after every show before we could move.
MSR: For Dinah Was, you got to air out both your acting and singing chops — while portraying a legend. How did it feel? What’s most memorable?
RMW: I absolutely loved playing Dinah Washington, and the role came along at a perfect time in my life. Vocally the music was in the right place, and I was finally playing someone my own age. It was a show that just felt right.
That show and my role boosted my career significantly. I recorded the companion CD, started singing more. It just opened up other avenues of performing, boosted my confidence, and I know that is the show that made a few other theaters recognize me.
MSR: Kimberly Elise, Lester Purry and Abdul Salaam El Razzac, among others, have left for L.A. Why are you still here?
RMW: There are a number of reasons I have remained in Minnesota. The first is Hollywood wants you when you are young…er than me. I have a fairly decent quality of life in Minnesota. It is an environment that supports live performance, theater, music, et cetera. And I love Minnesota. I am from California, but this is my home — even in winter when I don’t want to claim it.
I would very much like to work in a few other regional theaters, but I am not ready to uproot my family. My children are still in school. I was able to leave for a short while. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was at Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Theater. I also performed Redshirts with Penumbra at the Roundhouse Theater in Maryland. The kids and I fell in love with D.C. I received a Helen Hayes [Award] nomination for that show.
MSR: What’s next after the show you’re in right now?
RMW: I will take a brief break. From January through May 2011, I will be doing Doubt and playing Dulcinea in Man of La Mancha for Ten Thousand Things.
I really want to make time to direct what would be my third musical at my daughter’s high school. That would be Washburn. Go Millers!
For ticket prices and other information about Gee’s Bend at Park Square Theatre, see the Spot listing on page 7.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.