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Opening Their Eyes to Art and Each Other

When Opera Memphis staged a production of “Porgy and Bess” at the city’s Orpheum Theater in the fall of 2006, there were at least two love stories playing out in the room. One centered on Gershwin’s titular opera characters; the other, two high-school students in the audience.

Talibah Safiya and Bertram Williams Jr. were different types of teenagers. Growing up, Ms. Safiya, 30, a self-described “theater nerd,” would walk around her childhood home singing songs from “A Chorus Line,” “Hairspray,” “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls.”

Mr. Williams, 32, was two class years ahead of Ms. Safiya at Overton High School, a creative and performing arts school in Memphis that he transferred to after struggling at a conventional school.

“I was regularly dealing with truancy issues,” said Mr. Williams, who added that he had yet to develop an interest in creative pursuits when he arrived at Overton. “I was more concerned with keeping up with the latest Jordans, spending time at parties and trying to befriend as many young ladies as I could,” he said.

Ms. Safiya said she first noticed Mr. Williams in the hallways. The two were later introduced by a mutual friend, and Ms. Safiya said she then started telling other students that she had a crush on Mr. Williams.

“It was definitely a strategy,” Ms. Safiya said.

That evening at the Orpheum, during a school trip to the theater, Mr. Williams asked Ms. Safiya to sit next to him.

Some couples, recalling an early experience of seeing a film or a play together, might be expected to say something about being unable to focus on the stage or screen, so caught up were they in their budding romance. Not Ms. Safiya and Mr. Williams.

For them, what made the “Porgy and Bess” experience special was not only sitting side by side in cramped theater seats, but being moved — and sensing each other be moved — by the performance they were watching.

“There’s a song in ‘Porgy and Bess’ where she’s singing, ‘I love you, Porgy, don’t let him take me,’” Ms. Safiya said. She said the song, made her think “about how important feeling protected was as a woman,” and wonder if Mr. Williams “was a protector.’”

“That play,” she said, “gave some direction for both of us about how we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.”

Mr. Williams said that “there was a kind of triangulation happening” as they watched the performance.

From there, the two developed a relationship that oscillated, in perhaps a typically teenage way, between friendship and romance. Mr. Williams had a girlfriend at another school; he and Ms. Safiya never formally dated during this period. But they both agreed they were more than friends. (The two shared a first kiss backstage in their high school theater, during a rehearsal for an adaptation of “Lilies of the Field” that starred Mr. Williams.)

“We spent a lot of time talking on the phone and hanging out together in theater class, and skipping lunch to hang out,” Ms. Safiya said.

Of their relationship back then, Mr. Williams added, “We were deeply interested in each other’s minds. We think of younger relationships being somewhat shallow, but I remember immediately being so impressed by how original in thought and fashion and existence she was.”

In early 2007, while they were still in high school, they performed together in a production at the Hattiloo Theater, which had recently opened and has since become a major repertory house in Memphis. Ms. Safiya said she remembers getting into trouble during this period: She’d make entrances from the wrong side of the stage, having crossed backstage to spend time with Mr. Williams.

After Mr. Williams graduated from high school, he enrolled at the University of Memphis, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in economics. He and Ms. Safiya kept in touch, though their relationship remained platonic. They acted together at a local summer theater program, Echoes of Truth, where their performances included a play in which their characters dated.

Ms. Safiya and Mr. Williams insist that this was a coincidence. Nevertheless, it gave the two a preview of what officially being a couple might feel like.

“We were just walking across the stage holding hands,” Mr. Williams said. “I remember being like, ‘Oh I could get used to this.’”

Then Ms. Safiya left town.

After graduating from high school in 2009, she moved to Washington to attend Howard University, where she studied theater education. But they continued to keep in touch as friends.

“We would even talk about our other romantic relationships and be able to give really honest advice and reflections to one another,” Ms. Safiya said. “One of the things that has maintained our relationship is that we are friends first.”

They stayed in touch when Ms. Safiya left Howard in 2012 and moved to Brooklyn to pursue a career in music in New York, a choice that Mr. Williams said he admired.

“I was so inspired by her willingness to go off to New York without a plan, in pursuit of the thing,” he said. “She was chasing her dreams.”

After graduating from the University of Memphis, Mr. Williams spent time working for the city of Memphis’s Division of Housing & Community Development, then for an education program at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. He also managed a local jazz club, the Dizzy Bird Lounge, and continued to perform in plays at the Hattiloo Theater.

In 2013, when Ms. Safiya started releasing R&B music on Bandcamp and YouTube, Mr. Williams again became more than just her friend: He was also a fan who would seek out her work. From time to time, he would even invite Ms. Safiya to perform at the Dizzy Bird when she returned to Memphis to visit her family.

“I’ve got to be honest,” he said. “I was stanning,”

Ms. Safiya was surprised to discover that Mr. Williams had been so closely following her music from afar.

“I didn’t know if anybody was listening to it — I was pretty sure nobody was, in fact,” she said. “But he would know the words.”

In November 2015, Ms. Safiya returned to Memphis for several months to help her brother and her sister-in-law, who were expecting their first child. The trip gave her and Mr. Williams an opportunity to spend more in-person time together than they had in years, including at a baby shower for her sister-in-law that he hosted.

At the time, she was single and he was getting over a breakup.

It was on this trip to Memphis, Ms. Safiya said, when she realized she was ready to try something formal with Mr. Williams. But he needed more time. When she returned to New York, though, her mind remained in Memphis, with Mr. Williams.

“I was ready to plant myself,” Ms. Safiya said.

By the time she decided to leave New York for Memphis, in 2017, so was Mr. Williams.

He picked her up at the airport when she moved back and, in the car, they talked about their mutual readiness to build a lasting romance. They made plans to go out on a date — their first proper one since they met.

The pair had dinner outside at Ecco on Overton Park, a bistro in Memphis. Of the evening, Mr. Williams said, “There was this kind of chemistry brewing with us in that space that we hadn’t really given ourselves permission to consider or explore for years.”

Ms. Safiya added, “It felt like we were clearly walking into a new chapter of our relationship.”

They moved in to an apartment together a couple of weeks later, and about a year after that, into their current home in Memphis.

Mr. Williams proposed in April 2021, while the couple was filming a music video for a song by Ms. Safiya, who is an independent singer-songwriter in Memphis. Mr. Williams works as an actor based in Memphis; his recent credits include a recurring role in the Starz drama “P-Valley.”

The two were married Sept. 5, at Mound City, a former farm that has been converted into an events hall and rental property in Marion, Ark. The couple chose to get married at this location because of its history.

“We chose it because it was on land known to be a grave site for Indigenous Americans, and then also some sharecropping and, presumably, slavery,” the bride said. “We knew that land deserved to watch some Black folks experience joy.”

David Arnett, a baptist minister and an uncle of the bride, officiated at an outdoor ceremony in front of about 50 guests, most of them family members. It began with a libation ritual inviting the couple’s ancestors into the space and included several a capella performances by friends of the bride and groom, who, after saying their vows, jumped the broom. Masks were available for all guests.

In the interest of sustainability, both Ms. Safiya and Mr. Williams purchased outfits secondhand. He wore a vintage brown suit from the Lucky Exchange store in Atlanta; her yellow floral dress came from Stormy Normy Vintage, a shop on Etsy. Both of their outfits incorporated cowboy boots, which the couple bought from the Clothing Warehouse, a boutique in Atlanta.

Recently, Mr. Williams said he has noticed a shift in Ms. Safiya. As a performer, he said, she has always had a fierce stage presence — “a warrior queen or a drunken saloon owner cussing at the patrons” — while her offstage persona is marked by “tenderness and awareness and softness.” But in the last six months or so, he said, that line has blurred.

“I’m watching those two ways of being really kind of meld into one,” Mr. Williams said.


When Sept. 5, 2021

Where Mound City in Marion, Ark.

The Food The couple’s menu included fried catfish, cornbread dressing, watermelon salad, cabbage and macaroni and cheese.

The Souvenirs Guests received little bottles of Tabasco sauce as a party favor.

The Truck The day before the wedding, Mr. Williams bought an old, red Ford pickup truck, in keeping with the wedding’s farm theme. He tied Coca-Cola bottles to the back, a trick that he’d seen in movies. But offscreen, the bottles proved less romantic. “They didn’t make a sound,” he said.

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