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Samantha Williams: Caroline, or Change Was "My Best Theatrical Experience So Far"

Williams played Emmie in the recent Broadway revival of the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical.

Samantha Williams gave one of this season's great breakout performances as Emmie Thibodeaux, the free-spirited activist daughter of Caroline, the leading lady in Caroline, or Change. Williams actually had experience playing her own character's mother in college, which added depth and layers to her work in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's musical when it ran at Studio 54. Here, Williams looks back on her experiences.

Samantha Williams
(© Jenny Anderson)

Looking back, what was the Caroline, or Change experience like for you?
It was the best theatrical experience so far in my 24 years of life. Pre-pandemic, I was a lot younger and more naïve. I felt the pressure of everything, like Anika Noni Rose being my predecessor in the role. The pandemic really helped me put things in perspective, especially with everything that was going on in the world at the time and is still going on. I don't know; this time around just felt like I had a ot more ownership of the role, and it was just an all-around amazing experience. I learned so much.

Was this show part of your theatrical life or were you new to it?
I actually played Caroline as a freshman in college at Pace Univeristy. Jeanine Tesori was one of our artists in residence, and she came to do a workshop version of the show and became my mentor. It was in my senior year, when they announced they were bringing the show back to Broadway, that I auditioned and got Emmie, which felt like a full-circle moment.

What is it like to play Caroline as a freshman in college?
Honestly, it was huge. I went to a performing arts high school and I was thrown a lot of information about acting. Because I was so young, whatever was going to stick was going to stick, right? So, like, nothing really stuck. I get to college, started semester one of acting and I was kind of taught the same things, but this time they were making sense for me. When I was cast as Caroline in my second semester, everything started making sense to me within the craft of acting. Obviously, you know, I was 17 playing a 39-year-old, so it's funny to look back on. But it was one of those experiences that morphed me into understanding acting.

Sharon D Clarke and Samantha Williams in Caroline, or Change
(© Joan Marcus)

Having played Caroline, what was it like to go and then play Emmie on Broadway?
I resonate with Emmie so much more than I resonate with Caroline. Emmie is like me. Her outspokenness, her entire vibe…I was just being myself on stage. So I just had to basically let go of everything that I knew, or thought I knew, about the show, and just do it as myself, which was really freeing. It was me under specific circumstances, obviously, but it was nice to know that it was always a choice.

Tell me about coming back to the show after the pandemic, after the social reckoning, and how loaded that made the experience.
Over the pandemic, I came home to Texas and I stayed with my mom. I live a few blocks away from George Floyd's neighborhood, so everything was going on right in front of my eyes. Living in New York, going to school in New York, I was always around people who thought like me, but being here, I was reminded that there's a whole other side to it that really does exist. That really helped me going into the show a second time, because I was able to use everything I had seen, and just the reminders of family life being home, to play a teenager who's always fighting with her mom.

Did you interact much with Anika Noni Rose, who was the original Emmie?
We did an interview together where we were talking about our experiences, and what I thought was so interesting was that our experiences were very similar. It was her first really big thing, it's my first really big thing. She talked about how everyone in the cast felt like family and that's how it felt to me, too. It was just amazing to speak to her because she's the first Black Disney princess and I've looked up to her and she's a legend. It makes me excited for my future, to be honest.