Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Thursday through Oct. 16 (in person and online)
Tickets: Pay What You Can from 250-385-6815 or belfry.bc.ca
Nigel Shawn Williams collaborated with The Belfry Theatre for the first time in November, when he was tapped to direct Serving Elizabeth.
The Toronto actor-director is back at The Belfry this week for a production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel — the second time in less than a year he’s been hired by the Victoria company to direct an acclaimed historical drama about class and race in the 20th century.
“When somebody offers me a show, the one question I ask myself is, ‘Why are we telling this story now?’ ” Williams said of his decision to head back to Victoria. “If it comes to a point in which I can understand the social politics for me, being a Black artist in Canada, then I’ll do it.”
During an interview with the Times Colonist, shortly before her play’s Victoria run, Serving Elizabeth playwright Marcia Johnson spoke of her relationship with Williams, with whom she had worked in the past. “He’s such a detailed person — he’s the opposite of me,” Johnson said. “I’m this wild person throwing things at the wall and seeing if they stick, and he just plans and thinks.”
Williams agrees with that assessment. “I try to make sure that everyone else’s job is made as easily possible by me doing as much homework and prep as possible. I don’t expect to be, nor do I want to be, the smartest person in the room.”
His versatility — he’s won Dora Mavor Moore Awards for both directing and acting — served Williams well during the lead-up to Intimate Apparel. The decorated play about race, love and hope requires an experienced director, one who can navigate the multi-layered story of Esther, a young Black woman in 1905 New York who sews intimate apparel for clients.
The play deftly examines love both unrequited and unrealistic; heavy emotional lifting is a trademark of Nottage’s writing, which twice won the Brooklyn playwright the Pulitzer Prize for drama (in 2009 for Ruined, and in 2017 for Sweat). Williams knew instinctively how his cast (led by Jenny Brizard) would approach their roles, thanks to his decades of experience as a director and actor.
Having experience in both capacities has served him well. “I realize the worth of a director understanding the process of an actor. Not all directors were actors, so some come at it from an academic sense, and not necessarily a dramatic, emotional sense. I love actors — I still remember being one — and I understand what it costs them to be on stage and go to the places that they have to go to.”
He is familiar with Intimate Apparel, having helmed a Theatre Alberta production of it in 2012. But when the play opens at The Belfry tonight, it will be the first time in Williams’s career he has directed the same play on two occasions.
Williams said he was surprised how easily he forgot what he had learned from the previous engagement. He also noted how much he had changed as a person in the intervening decade.
“I think I’ve become much more confident about my social politics. I can articulate them more, and therefore understand why I want to do the play. I’ve been very fortunate in my career that as an actor and as a director I can say no to something that doesn’t fit with me or my politics or values and principles. I create art because I want to give back to the fabric of our culture.”
While his professional relationship with The Belfry is relatively new, his personal relationship with the company’s artistic director, Michael Shamata, dates back to 1989, when Shamata directed a play during Williams’s final year in the drama department at the University of Windsor. In the years since, Williams has risen to great heights in Canadian theatre, with five seasons at the Stratford and four seasons at the Shaw Festivals on his resume.
Intimate Apparel has given him the opportunity to take stock of his career to this point.
“I try to live without regret, so the choices that I make are based on a value system and principles of my own. I’m not regretting these choices because the art that I’m making is hopefully going to move things forward.”