As the Artistic Director of UCSC’s Rainbow Theatre, Don Williams isn’t sleeping much. Fall season is here, and a laundry list of details is keeping him up late.
Five shows will unfold over the coming weeks, each one focusing on cultural awareness and identity. When he’s not overseeing productions, juggling schedules, or teaching classes, Williams is hauling a stadium seating unit out of the storage bin to be transported to the performance space.
This is Rainbow Theatre’s 25th season, and Don Williams has been there every step of the way. “Our main direction and focus is pursuing cultures of color,” he says. “It’s not just that we do an Asian, African American, or Latin American play, but that we do them all in one season. These students work together as a cohort. They do these shows as a team.”
This year’s selected A and B program Rainbow Theatre shows include the Asian-American show Stop Kiss, African-American show The Coloured Museum, and Latinx/Chicanx show Real Women Have Curves. Each show explores themes related to each respective culture, identity and experience.
The seeds are planted in the spring, during a cultural studies class called Rainbow II. There, students review 10-15 scripts that tell stories of diversity. Plays may come from India, Cuba, the Philippines, or Compton, and students are welcome to add their suggestions to the mix.
“We tell them, ‘If you see a show that moves your spirit, submit it,’” says Williams. After much discussion, the class chooses the best in each category. “This is student-run,” he notes with pride. “As a mentor, I sit on the same side of the table as them.”
There are student actors, designers, directors, and even students on the board of directors who serve as cultural ambassadors for the program. The process and language are inclusive, involving them in everything from production to finance.
“We learn who has follow through and communication skills,” Williams says. “Can they say what they need, what they want? Then we can pursue it.”
One of the surprising aspects of Rainbow Theatre is that many students who participate aren’t theater arts majors. “They may be biochemists,” says Williams, “or studying to be doctors. But they love the arts, and when they have an opportunity to engage, they’re often impressive. Some of the best actors I’ve ever directed have become doctors.”
Out of the Shadows
When asked how theater shapes our conversations about race and identity, Williams puts it plainly. “It cuts to the chase,” he says. “To do a play, you have to know the characters. You analyze their every move. When you lock in a character’s motive and moment, that’s what tells the story.”
Williams points out that for too long, art created by people of color has been on the back burner. “It’s due to many things, including financial aspects, but also the fact that people of color are not in the limelight to actually present it,” he says. “As a society, we should be empowering that to happen more, because for us to really understand each other, we have to have stories we can see and hear, things we can view. They bring a commonality we can all embrace.”
This season, Rainbow Theatre will present a poetry reading and four plays, but equally compelling are the real stories that come out of the program. “I had a student who wanted to study law,” says Williams. “She worked on the tech crew because she was fearful of acting. But she watched and learned and wrote a play. We ended up producing it and the next year she wrote another one. We produced that, too. End of story, she went to Yale to become a playwright. Now her plays are produced professionally.”
Rainbow Theatre helps students of color feel like they belong. Williams empathizes with the black student who may be coming to UCSC from Oakland or L.A.
“They come into the dorm to find one or two students who even look like them, let alone talk like them. They’re trying to find a place for themselves,” he says. This is the gift that Rainbow Theatre offers to its participants and its audience, a compelling reminder that if we are all in this together, then every story counts.
Rainbow Theatre’s A and B programs run through Sunday, Nov. 11. Program C runs Friday, Nov. 16-Sunday, Nov. 18. Check online for complete details of show programs. 6:30 p.m. programs A and B, 2:30 p.m. program C. Stevenson Event Center. 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. 459-1861. cadrc.org. Free for UCSC students, $15 general.