Performance » Theater

Out of (South) Africa

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Michael Williams will do whatever it takes to help actors connect with their characters.

An exercise he recently put more than a dozen Butler University theater students through illustrates just how far he's willing to go.

Williams, an author, playwright, director and managing director of Cape Town Opera in South Africa, needed to get his students in the right headspace to portray black African refugees hiding in a small shipping container, illegally traveling across the sea in search of a better life.

Michael Williams, managing director of Cape Town Opera in South Africa, wrote and directs The Water Carriers. - COURTESY OF BUTLER UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy of Butler University
  • Michael Williams, managing director of Cape Town Opera in South Africa, wrote and directs The Water Carriers.

"I made them bring images of refugees and child soldiers (which we studied for 10-15 minutes), and told them to collect all of the stuff that they'd need to survive in a Butler forest for a few nights. I told them that the militia was arriving and that they had 10 minutes to leave the room," says Williams, leaning in for effect.

"I stripped them all down to just their jeans and a shirt. They took off their shoes and then had to carry all of the stuff that they had collected for half a mile along the gravel road barefoot outside, where I took them to a container and demanded money. I put them in the container for 20 minutes and left them there … to stew."

After sending someone to bang on the container with a piece of metal, Williams rushed back in saying that there was a problem and he needed more money.

"Then I left them there for another half an hour in the container in the dark, with them clutching their possessions, not knowing what the hell was going to happen next."

Eventually, at around 9 p.m., the container doors opened.

"I said, 'We've arrived! You can come out now,' " says Williams, who admits the students were a little traumatized by the experience.

"You had all of these poor Midwestern teenage kids coming out of the container, and some of them complained, saying 'We've never had to walk barefoot in our lives,' " says Williams, through fits of full-on laughter.

"It was rather terrifying, but it was necessary to get what our characters are going through," says Emily Bohn, a junior theater major from Carmel who plays an African Muslim grandmother. "It was eye-opening in the sense that you know these things intellectually, but to be put through it physically gives it a whole new meaning."

Emily Bohn, a junior theatre major at Butler University, performs the role of an African muslim grandmother in the play. - CRIPE PHOTOGRAPHY PORTRAITS
  • Cripe Photography Portraits
  • Emily Bohn, a junior theatre major at Butler University, performs the role of an African muslim grandmother in the play.

For Williams, it was all in a day's preparation for The Water Carriers.

The 75-minute play, written and directed by Williams for Butler's Theatre Department, follows the lives of a group of contemporary African refugees and their African ancestors as they make a harrowing trip across the waters inside a shipping container. To pass time, they tell an ancient African tale (an adaptation of two classic African legends, Sunjata and The Tree of Life) that comes in spurts as the container jostles in the choppy ocean waters, the container gets loaded onto a ship, and in-between confessions of some of the refugees' unsavory pasts.

"But they keep coming back to the story, because the words of the story feed us and remind us of our roots," says Williams. "The words of the story connect us to the traditions of the past and you need to tell the story so that it won't be lost as you travel to the new place."

The Water Carriers receives its world premiere Nov. 12-16 at the Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts on Butler's campus.

Williams says part of the inspiration for the play came from spending time with actual refugees in a soup kitchen in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. He's been there researching and working for the past two years on a couple of novels he's creating (Now is the Time for Running and Diamond Boy).

"I started working there to meet people coming from Sierra Leone, the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Zimbabwe," says Williams, who himself spent about five years as a refugee when he fled his native South Africa after graduating from the university to avoid conscription into the South African Defense Force. He lived in Nepal, London and the United States before returning to South Africa in 1991, after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

"I worked in that (soup) kitchen and started to kind of meet the ordinary refugee as he was looking for food and was homeless on the streets of Cape Town," says Williams. "I realized that it was quite incredible to hear the narratives of the journeys that they've made."

It took Williams six weeks to finish the script.

"He is such a prolific writer," says Diane Timmerman, chair of Butler's Theatre Department. "He whipped this right out. He's just an amazing person and artist."

Butler theater students play African refugees who are illegally traveling inside a storage container in search of a better life, in the world premiere of The Water Carriers. - COURTESY OF BUTLER UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy of Butler University
  • Butler theater students play African refugees who are illegally traveling inside a storage container in search of a better life, in the world premiere of The Water Carriers.

It was Timmerman who invited Williams to teach at Butler for the fall semester.

Four years ago, they met as instructors during a Semester at Sea program. Timmerman asked Williams then to come to Butler as part of its Christel DeHaan Visiting International Theatre Artist (VITA) program, which allows students to work with theater professionals from around the world for eight-10 weeks. Since the program's inception five years ago, students have worked with artists from Indonesia, India, London, and now South Africa.

"It is truly a unique program in this country," says Timmerman. "It's so immersive and so diverse in bringing different artists to work with the students. It's really wonderful to meet different people from different parts of the world. But it's even better to work with them because you get to know more about them and more about their culture and their lives, and the ways that they think, and the things they go through on a daily basis."

During his time at Butler, Williams is holding nothing back.

Butler's theater students have been working on mastering three different African dialects and songs, learning traditional West African dances, and really trying to understand what it's like to be a black African refugee.

The idea of working with the theater department's predominately white students on a play about black African refugees wasn't a concern for Williams. It's all part of the challenge of being an actor.

"When it comes to casting, I believe that as a writer can write about a woman and can write about a black man and can write about a child, so an artist or an actor can play an Indian, can play a Jew if you're Catholic, can play a black man and vise versa," says Williams. "It takes research, it takes a degree of understanding the character you're playing."

Bohn says the idea of playing someone of a different race and religion was originally intimidating.

"(But) it's been a really interesting experience," she says. "I really had to understand the religion, because we are in Africa and these are African Muslims. I want to respect what people know, but come at it from a human piece, because it's about humanity."

"This play is really challenging everyone," says Ronne Stone, an accomplished African dancer and choreographer who teaches World Technique to junior and senior dance majors at Butler. She also serves as the play's choreographer. "I really had to tap into my African roots for this production.

"I honestly had a lot of anxiety going into this, but immediately on the first day (Michael) just made everyone feel comfortable. He's a character, and we feed off of each other very well. He also knows exactly what he wants, but he's very open and is allowing people to bring their own ideas to the table. That helps you to be your best."

The collaborative process Williams uses empowers everyone around him -- from students to staff -- to learn and master different aspects of theater. Having him at Butler is definitely not lost on Timmerman.

African dancer and choreographer Ronne Stone serves as choreographer for The Water Carriers. Stone also teaches World Technique  to junior and senior dance students at Butler. - JOHNATHAN STONE
  • Johnathan Stone
  • African dancer and choreographer Ronne Stone serves as choreographer for The Water Carriers. Stone also teaches World Technique to junior and senior dance students at Butler.

"It's really incredible to have Michael here because he is a top international artist. I mean, we have him for nine weeks and he wrote a play for us and he's directing it just for us and teaching classes," she says. "And to have somebody of that caliber come in and inspire you, inspire us as faculty members, certainly inspiring the students. It's an amazing experience."

Pushing all accolades aside, Williams is enjoying his time at Butler but has his sights set on making The Water Carriers as authentic as possible.

"I want the audience to see an authentic, original, unique, African experience that's going to come at you like a train out of the night," he says. "Or rather like a tokoloshe (an African name for a mischievous spirit) out of the night."

Although the play deals with refugees, crime, death, life, tradition and, in some ways, the current state of immigration, Williams says it is family entertainment and shouldn't be considered "heavy material."

"It's life and it's the material of life. It's not heavy. It's absolutely family entertainment. And it's going to leave you thinking," he says. "There will be moments of sadness, moments of laughter, moments of song and dance, and there's going to be moments of high drama. But it's not heavy at all."

Before the lights fade during the play's final scene, Bohn hopes audiences see the bigger picture.

"I hope they see the characters as humans, seeing their struggles and also their triumphs," she says. "But also walk away and take a minute to think about their stance on the (immigration) situation that's so prevalent right now."


The Water Carriers

What: A world-premiere play about African refugees written and directed by author and director Michael Williams.

When: Nov. 12-16. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Nov. 12 and Nov. 14; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15; and 2 p.m. Nov. 16.

Where: Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts, 610 W. 46th St. (The center is located next to Clowes Hall.)

Tickets: $8 students, $13 senior citizens, $19 adults.

Info: (317) 940-2787 or www.schrottcenter@butler.edu.

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