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She Gave Up a Lot to Play Othello

In a phone interview from Virginia, Williams talked calmly and confidently about her decision, the “Othello” production and the pandemic. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’ve been thinking about playing Othello since you were a kid. Why?

I was like, “Oh, there’s a Black character in Shakespeare? I’ve got to play it!”

What do you think the significance is of playing the role as a Black woman?

I was doing a lot of research into the men who have played this before me, and something that came up a lot was, how do you play this beautiful person and not fall into the trap of perpetuating the idea that Black people are overemotional, monstrous, barbarous creatures? As a woman, I feel like I was able to get around the fear of that, because it didn’t have to do with being a man, it just had to do with being a human being. Also, it’s just really great to hand a female a role of this size — we’ve seen female Hamlets, female Richard IIs, we just recently saw a female Lear — and I think that’s important that women can tackle these epic roles.

You opted to resign as a member of your union to take the role. Can you explain what happened?

It was really sad, actually. To me it felt like Equity was assuming that I was being thrust into an unsafe situation, and that’s not how I felt at all.

But at the end of the day, I wasn’t receiving any unemployment, and I needed a paycheck. I live in a van and travel from job to job, and that had just broken down. And I have a lot of love for this place and a lot of love for the people in the community. It’s a small town, and the theater drives the restaurants and the small businesses. And I chose to stay.

It was a really, really tough decision for me. I really hoped that Equity would understand, and I hope that they will understand in the future. But ultimately I needed a job, and there weren’t a lot of other opportunities, and I felt a lot safer at the A.S.C. than if I had to pick up a job at a grocery store or go work a service industry job and find my all the way across the country during the pandemic and move in with my mother, who is elderly and at risk.

It felt like the right thing to do, and I don’t regret it.

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