Advocating for Diversity
Don’s connection with students amplifies their voices
With one shoulder pad bigger than the other and no helmet, Don William’s football coach hollered him over after practice. Drawing on a memory from fourth-grade, Don still recalls being cut from the team because the league didn’t allow more than three non-Catholics per squad. He went to practice anyway, and as he hustled over to his coach, the other kids — some more than four grades above him — laughed at his mismatched uniform.
When Don approached the coach, he wasn’t mad — quite the opposite — he started to cry. “Boy, you’re going to play football,” he said to the young player.
Since then, Don has developed a knack for moving past the laughs and disregards. When he was in high school, his counselor told him he wasn’t “college material.” His response: attending Michigan State for his BA in theater, followed by the University of Southern California for his MFA in directing.
Don kept hearing the words “I can’t” or “you’re not,” but he wouldn’t let the words affect him. It was a similar circumstance that led him to theater. “You can't stop me from acting, because I’m going to act. You can’t stop me from allowing other people to act, because I'm going to make it happen."
Don didn’t come to UC Santa Cruz with the intent of starting African American and multicultural theater troupes. But in 1991, the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT), was established out of a simple, but significant request. “I had these students, African American students, coming to me saying: ‘We want to act too. Can you help us, Mr. Williams?’” Don explained, “It was a calling. It was a straight out calling.”
Their frustration was familiar to Don. “It was like deja vu for me being at Michigan State,” where Don started his own theater troupe because, on a campus of nearly 50,000 students, there wasn’t a single theater program focused on supporting performers of color.
“There were plenty of stories to choose from, but folks were more comfortable doing plays they were familiar with — from their own background, their own history,” he said.
“They really wanted this in their heart, they wanted this in their soul, to be able to express themselves, to learn about each other, and to have the opportunities to showcase materials done by their own communities.”
Productions by and for African American students were simply “not happening,” so the students and Don sacrificed whatever spare time they had — neither received pay or credit at the time. Together, they were resourceful. Rehearsals were held wherever space was available — dorms, lounges or during unreserved time at the college event center. The troupe scoured the campus for anything available that could prove useful for a performance — lighting, props, costumes, setting — because they didn’t have a budget.
“When we first started with Rainbow and AATAT, we charged a small entrance fee,” but that money went straight to funding that would bring in professional shows performed by actors and actress of color. “We needed to let folks on this campus know that the arts of color mean something and that we have value and that we’re professionals. If you don’t know it, you need to see it because I’m seeing it.”
The productions provided students of color a chance to see people they could identify with in professional theater and hear stories about their histories, as well as an educational opportunity for the campus. After their 1993 production of the “Amen Corner,” a play by James Baldwin that focuses on the trials endured by a single mother who finds her calling as a pastor in a Pentecostal church, more students — Asian American, Pacific Islander and Chicano/Latino students — approached Don, wanting to do something similar.
Don’s ability to recognize talent, and empower students to tighten their skills and enrich their college experience is what has fostered the deep sense of belonging students feel at Cultural Arts and Diversity. Whether through performances, academic credit, or scholarships, Don and the CAD student leaders work together to serve their community and provide a creative outlet.
“There’s in inward drive to me to make sure that talents are put to flight,” Don said. “It’s not about money. It’s just about the belief of the mind that I can do it. If you’re determined in your heart and soul, and you come out trying to serve, somebody’s going to put something in your hand."
His compassion for students is one that can’t be missed. Whether it’s asking a student if they need to talk, or encouraging a student to pursue their passion for acting, Don remembers what his coach told him decades ago — “you can do it.” And as he always says, "If you want to be truly blessed, learn to uplift someone higher than yourself."