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Theater Jones Q&A: Michelle Williams

Dallas — Michelle Williams, along with Kelly Rowland and Beyonce Knowles, has already been part of one of the most successful girl groups of all time, Destiny’s Child. If she seemed like the shyest one of the group, that hasn’t gotten in the way of her taking on Broadway, appearing as the title character in Aida and as Roxie Hart in Chicago.

Now, she’s touring the country in the musical Fela! The show features a book and choreography by Bill T. Jones, who had a distinguished career with his own contemporary dance company—Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company—before he added musical theater to his skills (he won a Tony for his choreography on both Spring Awakening and Fela!). It tells the story of Nigerian muscian Fela Kuti, who from the 1960s through the ’90s, was acclaimed for his high-energy music and performances. He was the star of a genre called Afrobeat, and notable for political lyrics, which landed him in jail and in hot water with the Nigerian government again and again. He often railed against Western cultural colonialism.

In the tour, which opens tonight in the Lexus Broadway Series at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, actor Adesola Osakalumi plays Fela, and Michelle Williams plays Sandra, an American Black Panther Party member who Kuti met, and was influenced by, in the late ’60s.

Williams only has one scene and song, but as she tells TheaterJones, she has learned how to make the most of her brief time onstage. She also talks about her new foundation and coming as a person who has battled depression.

TheaterJones: You’ve been on Broadway before, and in this show, the role of Sandra has little stage time. How was this a different challenge from the stage work you have done before, notably as Aida and Roxie Hart?

This role might be one of the smallest roles that I’ve played, but there’s so much energy I have to exude for it to be meaningful. If you’re on stage for three minutes, you better make it the best three minutes, to where that’s all people talk about after the show.

That’s been a challenge every single night. Even if you’re tired, you cannot act small or be small. Sandra is not a small person. She was about black power and black consciousness, so you couldn’t be soft and timid or quiet. That’s what helps me every night, to go out there with purpose and intention. If you have those things, you’ll rock out it.

Did you know Fela Kuti’s music before this?

Yes. My father was a DJ in Chicago, he had hundreds and hundreds of vinyl in these milk crates, everything from heavy metal to jazz, from Boni Jovi to the Yellowjackets. I’ll never forget being 10 or 11 years old going to a Yellowjackets concert with my father. He was heavy into music, and he was a union stage hand at concerts.

But I discovered Fela’s music about six years ago. And when I got this role, I listened to more and I YouTubed the music. It’s important that you listen to what he’s singing about. It’s a message of politics and love and how he seamlessly puts it all together.

Are we seeing a decline in politically motivated music, the kind that artists like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley were all about?

I think we still have that kind of music around. It’s not going to grab mainstream attention, unless it’s very current and it catches somebody’s eye and they want to criticize you for it or put you in jail for it, which is what happend to Fela.

His music stood for something. Now, people are scared to talk about these issues, because corporate dollars are poured into people’s brands. If you say any wrong thing, or what’s deemed as wrong, they cut you off.

Fela was thrown in jail 200 or more times; his house and music compound were burned to the ground, but he still toured and made music. That’s not even what killed him [he died of HIV-related complications in 1997].

You have been open about your past struggles with depression. Why did you decide to talk publicly about it?

That wasn’t even planned. I was in rehearsals in New York doing interviews with a journalist from the Associated Press, and mind you, it kind of just came out. We were in normal conversation. And then I saw it on the newswire, it was everywhere the next day.

Once that happened, I knew it was out there and people were being touched by my story.

It’s been taboo to talk about depression and mental illnesses. You’re letting people know that it is OK to talk to somebody and to get help. When you realize “I’ve been sad way too long,” it’s OK to talk to somebody about what’s triggering [the depression]. I think a lot of stuff stems from unresolved issues, and you have to be strong and face it.

Do you feel that, as a public figure, it’s your responsibility to talk about it?

Absolutely. How many people have taken their own lives because of despression? I want them to know that if they can just hold on, help might have come. I know people go through different levels of depression, and all kinds of things. My was not as severe as other cases. But there is help out there.

You’ve launched a foundation to help with this issue, and bullying?

Yes. The Michelle T. Williams Foundation, we’re launching that this year. We’re going to launch it in my hometown first [Rockford, Illinois]. I want to start by helping a few people, may 10 or 15 people, and from there, expand to help more people.

Nice. Thanks for that, Michelle, and welcome to Dallas.

I can’t wait to come there because, you may not be able to tell by looking at me, but I love to eat. And I know we’re going to get a lot of good food in Dallas.

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