A friend suggested to Donald Williams in the mid-’80s that he tour as a comedian with a local jazz group he was managing at the time. Williams thought the idea was ridiculous: He had never done stand-up comedy before. Plus, he had a full-time job and two kids. “It was the last thing on my mind,” Williams remembers. But, after much urging, he decided to go anyway, and the experience turned into a career—his computer day job notwithstanding.
For years, Williams made people laugh at open-mike nights around D.C. But his main interest lay in the kind of humor not found on the average club bill—the kind that has the global appeal of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, minus the latter’s “blue language,” but is grounded in the theatrical routines of comedians from the Harlem Renaissance. Humor like that of, say, the ’20s black comedian Bert Williams.
What struck Donald Williams about Bert Williams was that apart from being a joke-teller, he was a multitalented entertainer who was limited in the roles he could play onstage because of the social and political climate for blacks during that minstrelsy period. “He was the fall guy. If he was walking down the street, he would be the one to fall down,” Donald Williams says. “He had to wear blackface and had to conform because of racial prejudice.”
The research inspired him to create his latest piece, No Time:
A Portrait of Bert Williams, a monologue that includes the earlier comedian’s gambling pantomime. Now, in a theatrical tangent at age 56, he’s presenting it for the first time, coupled with The Church Fight, a 10-character play he presented last year, written by Ruth Gaines-Shelton in 1925.
Inside a large room at the Josephine Butler Center on 15th Street NW, Williams bears down on one actor’s shoulders and loudly explains into his ear, “You walk first. Then you speak.” The original Gaines-Shelton play had the perfect dialogue, he says, but no physical action. Much of the director’s adaptation includes movement cues: standing up, dropping a cane, and primping in the mirror. And as a run-through of the play gets started, it’s clear that the trademark of the new Church Fight is thunderous table slapping and floor stomping in true Baptistlike rapture.
At the center of it all, church members are conspiring to get rid of their minister, Parson Procrastinator. Sister Instigator says they’ve been looking at his face for 13 years too long. Others remember the incident in which he held on to one sister’s hand a little too long during a prayer meeting. And while the rest of them “can’t afford a crust of bread to eat,” where did Parson get the money to pay “spot cash” for the $7,000 house down on 6th Street? The bickering pits Parson against everybody from Sister Two-Face to Brother Judas to Brother Investigator.
Spliced between bits of period music, the play looks with levity at what Williams concludes is a grave reality in today’s society: “People are very hypocritical,” he says. “They do one thing and say another. To try to get rid of our leaders, we lie about them. Basically, people lie.”—Ayesha Morris
No Time: A Portrait of Bert Williams and The Church Fight will be presented at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Auditorium, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD, Sunday, March 26 at 5 p.m. $8. For more information, call (202) 986-4630.