Artist Profile: A. Zell Williams (Playwright)
– The Missing Ingredient
If timely and fearless young playwrights had a uniform, it might be this: red button-down, black jeans, gray hoodie, and dreads. Add a laptop, a healthy reservoir of anger and indignation, and throw in an acute awareness of story, and you might have before you just the right ingredients for a playwright with a mind for social agendas, which is what I see when I look at A. Zell Williams, sitting across from me at Triona’s an Irish pub that, over the past two years, has become his favorite haunting spot.
We may be contemporaries and classmates, but the California native with strong Chicago ties has already garnered a slew of praise. His ensemble drama, Blood/Money, which examines the contemporary black family and the struggle for higher education, won the inaugural David Calicchio/Marin Theatre Company Emerging American Playwright Prize. In a Daughter’s Eyes, about the daughter of an incarcerated Black Panther who seeks the help of a slain cop’s daughter to exonerate her father, collected the National New Play Network’s Smith Prize for Best Political Play. A Motherless Child, his ensemble drama focusing on the question of homosexuality in the Black community snatched up the Reverie Productions’ Next Generation Playwright’s Award and was a finalist for the Yale Drama Series Prize for Emerging Playwrights.
We’ve met to discuss one of his latest plays, The Urban Retreat, a farcical tragicomedy that
wades in the tumultuous waters of hip-hop, race, and masculinity in America. Workshopped
at the prestigious Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop, it recently won the New
York University Goldberg Award.
The first scenes of the play came to Zell as a reaction to the works of Tyler Perry who, for
many people Zell knew, was their only frame of reference for depictions of blackness in film
“He’s bringing in audiences of color, challenging them,” Zell says. “He’s doing something
that seems important.” At the same time, Zell bristled at those one-dimensional depictions
that lacked nuance.
Ultimately, the play tells the story of a struggling author hired to pen the memoirs of a rap
artist which moved beyond a reaction to Tyler Perry, and began to tackle a larger question
looming in hip hop music and culture: how do you reconcile Lil Jon and Mos Def? If
rappers like Chuck D and Public Enemy can make music meant to inspire social change,
what about those rappers who are in it only for the chains and the convertibles? Are they
outside the Culture?
When asked what he means by ‘Culture,’ Zell responds, “I think it is a work that inherently comes from a person’s experience as a member of a community.” He points to music as a quintessential part of the historical African American experience, Motown in particular.
“[Motown] encapsulated what it meant to be black in America,” Zell says. “If you knew
what good music was, you knew what was going on. It was music to make people’s lives
better. Also, it was telling stories.”
Motown was a cultural representation of a certain group of people at a certain time, and Zell
hopes The Urban Retreat can carry that distinction some day.
“Tupac straddles the line,” Zell contends while chuckling. “With personal narratives in ‘Dear
Mama’ and ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’ and less noble efforts like ‘What’z Ya Phone #?’ What are
you trying to tell me? Are you just an entertainer?”
He could be asking contemporary playwrights as well as contemporary rappers.
“The Urban Retreat is a statement of what I feel to be a living dilemma,” Zell says. “An inside/outside view of being an African American male in 2012.”
The play is especially timely given the nation’s preoccupation with labeling itself a “post-race
society;” “We aspire, but we are not there.”
“I used to believe that plays can fix the world,” Zell says.
Time has moderated Zell’s vision. Plays are vital and can effect change, but most
importantly, “they give us an opportunity to reflect.”
It is in that moment that Zell shows off the final ingredient for a playwright of his agenda,
not only a message and an enthusiasm in communicating it, but the ability, a gift even, for