Interview: Schele Williams’s Empowering Journey to the Director’s Chair

The director of The Notebook and The Wiz discusses her evolution, as well as her new books for kids.

Schele Williams left a major mark on stage this past season with two productions. She codirected the new musical The Notebook, as well as helmed the revival of The Wiz, first on tour and then at the Marquis.

Formerly an actor, Williams transitioned to directing in an effort to empower women in the audition and rehearsal rooms, ensuring they feel seen and valued for their contributions to the process.

Beyond directing, Williams is also an author of books for children and young adults, including Your Legacy: A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History and the more recent Your Legacy Begins: First Words to Empower.

We sat down with Williams to explore her journey, creative process, and the importance of educating children on the stories of the past, while looking ahead to the future.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

DLA Honoree Schele Williams (Photo Credit Brent Dundore)
Schele Williams
(© Brent Dundore)

You started as an actor. What made you want to become a director?
It evolved. When I did Aida, I realized I wanted to be telling the stories on the other side mostly because I had never worked with a Black woman director. I’d only ever worked with a woman director once in my career. It’s really hard to play a woman and never have a woman to talk to behind the table.

So you always worked with male directors?
Male directors, male writers, male choreographers. It’s like your entire existence is being defined by men. And even if you do feel like you have the tiniest bit of agency to say something doesn’t feel right, there’s no one to corroborate that behind the table. I just hit my limit and I decided I wanted to be that person. It has been incredible to sit down with writers and shape roles for women and have deep conversations about their status, and all the things that I wish had been considered when I was on stage.

How did you establish yourself and get your foot in that door?
I started all the way back over. I had done the Actors’ Fund version of Hair. There was an after party at John’s Pizzeria and I ran into a dear friend who asked what I was going to do now. And I said “I really want to become a director,” and he said “Well, you’re at an industry party. Just start telling everybody you’re a director.” I literally did. From that party, I got a call about a project which was a reading of a new piece. And then I got a call to actually direct Aida, so that was one of the first productions I directed, at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

Were you intimidated when you first went off on your own as a director?
When I did my first bit of regional theater, there was a lot of learning on the job, but I had been through a few tech processes as an actor, and I’m the kind of actor that wants to know everything. While other people were in their dressing room, I was in the house watching. I was always deeply curious about how all the things contributed to what I was doing. By the time I was directing, I had observed enough to know this is what happens next.

5.THE WIZ.Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion Avery Wilson as Scarecrow Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman.Photo by Jeremy Daniel c 2023 aec4075246
Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, and Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman in The Wiz
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Tell me about your work as an author, aside from the theater industry.
I wrote a book that came out in 2021 called Your Legacy: Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History. I wrote it because I was trying to have a conversation with my daughters about their enslaved history and I could not figure out a way to talk about it without it being fully traumatizing.

My daughters are mixed race and mixed faith. My husband is Jewish. Every year, we sat at Passover and talk about their Jewish slave history. And I was like, “I don’t know how to have a conversation with them about their Black enslaved ancestors.” I started doing some research and I realized that the story that I wanted to tell them was so different from the story that I was told as a child. I was introduced to slavery in the most traumatic way, and it was about what happened to our ancestors as opposed to who they were.

The first line of my book is, “Your story begins in Africa.” I start with our ancestors when they were free, when they were speaking their own native language, when they were building kingdoms, when their ingenuity and their creativity and their intelligence was truly building a continent, and then how they brought that ingenuity, how they brought that love, how they brought that dignity to America and cultivated this land and grew this country in insurmountable ways. I talk about their accomplishments and about the gifts and the legacy that they have given to us. We are here because they survived and they thrived and passed down all of that to us.  

This new book is called Your Legacy Begins: First Words to Empower. I use nine words that give a child purpose, like love, ingenuity, dignity, grace, brilliance. It is for the littles, ages zero to four, and it doesn’t talk about enslavement at all. It is really just the first words to inspire a young reader and let them know that they have great purpose.

 Do you find it’s hard to achieve a balance between work and home life?
Oh, for sure. It’s always a challenge because everywhere I am, I want to be 100 percent. But that’s with anything you love, and sometimes you’re choosing between two things that you really, really love and the things that really need you. My family knows that they are the greatest thing in my life, and they know that I still have dreams, and I still have things that I want to accomplish. They’re all for it, which is so beautiful because I want them to always give themselves permission to do that very same thing.

2024 03 14 TheaterMania The Notebook Opening Night Curtain Call 21
Schele Williams on opening night of The Notebook on Broadway
(© Tricia Baron)

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