Samm-Art Williams: A Biography
Posted on: April 29, 2021
When Samm-Art Williams moved to New York in 1973, he entered into a creative and politically-driven theatre scene for Black artists:
Williams emerged with a new generation of Black playwrights who had worked with the Negro Ensemble Company and other New York theatres. He also acted in many of the NEC productions. His contemporaries include:
Emerging in the ‘60s avant-garde scene, Kennedy pushed the boundaries of realism and traditional dramatic structure to create imaginative theatrical worlds. In poetic plays such as Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), The Owl Answers (1965), and A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White (1967), Kennedy explores Black female identity and deconstructs traditional notions of character. Playwright Aleshea Harris has noted Kennedy’s influence as “a liberating beacon reminding me that no structure, no mode of expression or subject matter is off limits to me as a dramatist.”
Born in New York in 1929 and first produced in 1965, Carter became the literary manager for the NEC and ran their Playwright’s Workshop in the 1970s. Samm-Art Williams acted in two plays from Carter’s “Caribbean trilogy”—Eden (1975) and Nevis Mountain Dew (1978), both produced by the NEC. Carter’s plays explored themes of immigrant life, based on the experiences of his Trinidadian grandfather and mother: “Caribbeans were accepted, but American blacks weren’t. People from the West Indies were considered more exotic, and by and large had the benefit of a better education.”
One of the NEC’s most prominent playwrights, Lee’s experiences with the 1960s Black Power movement inspired him to dramatize the lives of people “who struggle daily against racism and against other things that are constantly impinging upon their consciousness.” Williams acted in Lee’s breakthrough play, First Breeze of Summer (1975), which opened at the NEC’s home theatre, St. Mark’s Playhouse, before moving to Broadway. The autobiographical drama portrays a Black middle-class family in Pennsylvania. A prolific writer until his passing in 2014, Lee’s plays explored the Black experience throughout different moments in American history.
for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange at the Royalty Theatre, London, in 1979.
Shange broke onto the theatre scene with for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf in 1976, making her the second Black woman to be produced on Broadway—after Lorraine Hansberry with A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Originally written as a series of poetic monologues capturing the perspectives of Black women, for colored girls... wove text with music and dance in what Shange subtitled “a choreopoem.” The versatile Shange wrote 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books, three collections of essays, and a memoir before passing in 2018.
Although Williams was living and working in New York when he wrote Home, he drew on his experience growing up in rural North Carolina. The play reflects a deep understanding of the dignity of Black rural dwellers, and the struggles they face.
A farmer’s son feeds pigs in Creek County, Oklahoma, in 1940. Photo by Lee Russell.
A Black farmer in Texas, 1933
Cephus Miles, the main character in Home, has a deep connection to his family’s land. The obstacles he faces to hold on to it represent the experience of many Black farmers in the past and today. The ability for Black people to own their own property, grow their own food, and be their own boss—especially on Southern land—represents a level of freedom and economic autonomy that had once seemed impossible. Unfortunately, the history of Black farmers in America is marked by systemic discrimation that caused a severe loss of Black-owned farms throughout the 20th century. There were one million Black farmers in 1920; today there are 50,000. This 95% reduction can be attributed to discrimination by federal programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as state inheritance laws:
In 1999, Black farmers won an important victory against the USDA. The case, titled Pigford vs. Glickman, proved that discrimination by the USDA had a direct influence on the loss of Black farms between 1981 and 1996. The case showed that 14 million acres of Black-owned land were lost after 1910 as a result of these practices. The government settled the case for $1 billion, allowing $50,000 per person for damages, but individual farmers had to prove a pattern of discrimination by the USDA.
Black farmers still struggle today, but the U.S. government recently made a long-delayed move towards reparations. The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March 2021 earmarked $5.2 billion (half of the total funds designated for agriculture) specifically for Black farmers. These funds will be used to pay off the debts of disadvantaged farmers and to set up a new racial equity commission in the USDA.
Draft Director Louis Hershey driven from the stage by anti-war protestors at Howard University on March 21, 1967.
Besides the challenge of land ownership, Williams also portrays the consequences for a Black man who resists the draft during the Vietnam War—which ended only four years before Home was written.
Today, it is recognized that Black men were drafted and sent to combat in Vietnam at a disproportionate rate: in 1967, 16.3% of soldiers drafted and 23% of combat troops were Black, though they only made up 11% of the total population. Moreover, the U.S. military actively sought to enlist Black soldiers though a program which promoted economic opportunities of enlistment for poor men. In total, 12.5% of the Vietnam war mortalities were Black men.
The Black Power movement and its contemporaries resisted participation in the Vietnam War for diverse reasons. Malcolm X, one of the first Black leaders to publicly denounce the war, called out the hypocrisy of sending Black men abroad to fight for a country where they were constant targets of violence and discrimination. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, a pacifist, spoke to the moral failings of this war and the harm it did to America’s world leadership.
In Home, Cephus's refusal to serve in the Vietnam War stems from religious beliefs against killing, which would make him a conscientious objector (CO). The U.S. allows conscientious objection to military service on the basis of religious, moral, or ethical beliefs. However, like many Black draftees who lacked access to counseling and resources to navigate the draft system, Cephus does not understand how to make his case as a CO to the Selective Service.
A relatively small number of men, about 3,250, were jailed for draft evasion during the Vietnam era. One of the most prominent COs arrested was prizefighter Muhammad Ali. In 1967, having recently converted to Islam, Ali refused to fight on religious grounds. Like Cephus, Ali did not register as a CO and was sent to jail. Ali appealed, and in 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. As a celebrity, Ali brought attention to the many religious Black Americans who took a moral stance against the war; in Home, Samm-Art Williams tells a lesser-known story of rural Black men and their struggles for self-determination. ♦
Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre
Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series
Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading
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Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. “A Black Man Fights the Draft: Interview With Michael Simmons.” Civil Rights Movement Archive, 2003. Web. Accessed March 21, 2021.
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Foster, H. (2014, March 21). The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975). BlackPast.org. March 21, 2014.
Hammad, Lamia Khalil. Black Feminist Discourse of Power in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 3.2, 2011, 258-267.
Harris, Aleshea. “The Lighthouse” in “Adrienne Kennedy: A Liberating Beacon.” American Theatre, September 4, 2019.
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Nesmith, Nathaniel G. “The Life of a Playwright: An Interview with Steve Carter.” New England Review. Middlebury College, V13 No 27, 2016.
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Toth, Gabriella.“The Interplay of Film and Theatre in Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has To Star in Black and White.” AMERICANA E-JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES IN HUNGARY. Vol. VII No 1, Spring 2012.
Thompson, Erica. “Serving without ‘equal opportunity’: Vietnam veterans faced racism at home and abroad.” The Columbus Dispatch. December 9, 2020.
“Vietnam War Casualties by Race, Ethnicity and Nat’l Origin.” The Names of Vietnam War Personnel 1945 to 1975. The American War Library, 2008.
Weber, Bruce. “Leslie Lee, Playwright Who Enlarged Black Life Onstage, Dies at 83” The New York Times, January 22, 2014.