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Samm-Art Williams: A Biography

About the Playwright


Samm-Art Williams: A Biography

Actor, writer, and producer Samm-Art Williams was born in the small town of Burgaw, North Carolina in 1946. Williams grew up in Burgaw under the care of his mother, a high school English and drama teacher; he credits her with his interest in and love of words. He has said that his mother “made me read everything from Langston Hughes to Edgar Allan Poe...I think The Raven was my greatest influence—in seeing this bird, I saw what a great thing it was to be able to work on a person’s mind with words.” Williams graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland where he studied political science and psychology. At one point, he considered becoming a lawyer, but his dream of being a playwright won out.

After college, Williams moved to Philadelphia, where he collaborated with the Freedom Theatre as an actor, worked as a salesman to pay his bills, and wrote in his free time. Eventually he moved to New York to focus on his writing, though he knew he would also have to continue acting for income. Williams quickly became a fixture with the Negro Ensemble Company, first as an actor and then as one of their frequently-produced playwrights. He found a mentor in Negro Ensemble Company Playwright-in-Residence Steve Carter; Williams has proclaimed, “no single individual has influenced my writing to the degree that Steve Carter has.” Williams has penned, in his words, “15 to 20 plays,” including Welcome to Black River (1975), The Last Caravan (1977), Brass Birds Don’t Sing (1978), his most well-known play Home (1979), Eyes of the American (1985), In My Father’s House (1996), and The Waiting Room (2007). In addition to working with the Negro Ensemble Company, he has premiered plays at the Billie Holiday Theatre and Stage 73. Williams’s plays cover such disparate topics as boxing, the legacy of Black minstrel performers, and the trauma inflicted on innocent individuals in Nazi Germany. Of his writing, Williams has said, “I try to shy away from making statements. I just write what I feel as an individual. Whatever audiences take away, fine.”

In addition to his theatrical career, Williams has worked in film and TV in a variety of roles on and off-camera. His acting credits include such TV films as Cook and Peary: The Race to the Pole, the 1986 adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and numerous commercials. He served as executive producer and also as story editor and writer on acclaimed TV shows "Frank’s Place," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and "Martin," the first of which earned him one of his two Emmy nominations.

In 2007, the Negro Ensemble Company welcomed Williams back to the theatre by premiering his latest play, The Waiting Room, which ran for two weeks at the 45th Street Theatre. In an article announcing the play in The New York Amsterdam News, Charles E. Rogers summed up the dramatist’s career in a single complimentary sentence: “Now anyone who knows Black theater, knows that Williams is one of its most celebrated and respected playwrights and that his return to playwriting after a long and successful career in television and film is a momentous occasion.”

William was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2010, further cementing his legacy as one of the most influential and prolific American writers of his generation. ♦

Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre

Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series

Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading

Arkatov, Janice. “A SOJOURN FOR SAMM-ART WILLIAMS.” Los Angeles Times, 12 Aug. 1986. Accessed 18 Mar. 2021.

“Author: Samm-Art Williams.” Broadway Play Publishing Inc. Accessed 18 Mar. 2021.

Court Theatre. “About the Playwright.” Home Study Guide. 2010.

“Literary North Carolina: Samm-Art Williams Discusses His Work.” Youtube, uploaded by NCArts, 27 Oct. 2010.

Rogers, Charles E. “Theatre veteran debuts new play at NEC.” The New York Amsterdam News, 1-7 Mar. 2007, p. 21.

“Samm-Art Williams.” North Carolina Writers Network. Accessed 18 Mar. 2021.

“Samm-Art Williams Interview.” YouTube, uploaded by SignatureTheatreNY, 5 Jan. 2009.

"Williams, Samm-Art 1946– ." Contemporary Black Biography. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.