Minneapolis' Regina Marie Williams triumphed onstage amid loss
Although one would not wish hardship on anyone, Regina Marie Williams used the shadows in the valley of death as springboards to leap onto mountaintops in 2023.
It all began Feb. 4, opening night of "Hello, Dolly!" at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis. Before she glided onstage to hand out her cards as resilient matchmaker Dolly Levi, Williams found out that her brother, Veyondtra Williams, had died in Tulsa, Okla. He had been her biggest cheerleader.
She channeled her grief into a magnificent performance.
And so it would go for her the rest of the year, with Williams using fate as fuel. She delivered sublime turns at the Guthrie Theater, playing the pangs of Queen Gertrude's inner conflict in "Hamlet" like a virtuoso violinist. She followed that by wittily inhabiting the pants roles of the Narrator and the Mystery Man in the Stephen Sondheim fairy-tale mashup "Into the Woods."
The range and versatility she showed as she leapt from musical comedy to drama and tragedy, and from contemporary works to classics made her one singular sensation. Williams, who has been steadfast in her pursuit of perfection, has been recognized as the Star Tribune's Artist of the Year.
"There's hardly a better choice," said Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj, who directed Williams in "Hamlet." "Regina has this commanding presence and internal compression that cannot be taught. She doesn't overreach but gets the audience to come to her through this stillness that just pulls you in."
It all began as a Muppet
Still, Williams is the first to admit that 2023 was vertigo-inducing. Family, friends and audiences kept her aloft like a singer surfing a concert crowd.
"Sometimes I go about pitying myself and all the while I am being carried across the sky by beautiful clouds," she said, invoking an Ojibwe saying.
Williams' triumphs have been a long time coming. As a youngster growing up in Los Angeles, she was smitten with singing, acting and make-believe. While her father, Dock Williams, supported her dreams, it was her nurse mom, Olive Williams, herself a gifted church piano player, who fed her passion. Olive Williams thought the fourth of her eight children should be on television.
But little Regina was being called to the stage. In 1981 when she was 18 and getting ready for college, a friend suggested that she try out for the live version of "Sesame Street." She had what she confesses was a "terrible audition" but, somehow, she got cast as a Muppet. She ended up dancing and acting the role of the Count in "Sesame Street Live."
The show was produced by Minneapolis-headquartered Vee Corp., and she would fly to Minneapolis from Los Angeles to rehearse for a 10-month national tour. Williams stayed with "Sesame Street" until 1987, the year she married her late husband, John Flynn, a "Sesame Street Live" carpenter 17 years her senior, and moved permanently to the Upper Midwest. They had two children.
From her "Sesame Street" lens, the Twin Cities looked like a place of great opportunity. But after her move, Williams found the theater scene clannish and difficult to crack. She took a job at FAO Schwartz at the Mall of America, rising to store manager. Though stable, that life lacked the connection to people that she craved.
Finding her groove
She dipped her toes back into theater, with a turning point coming after Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theatre cast her in "A … My Name Is Alice," and then hired her on staff in various capacities. She continued to build her skills.
In 2003, she auditioned for "Dinah Was," Oliver Goldstick's play about jazz icon Dinah Washington. The show's director, Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy, was not in the tryout that Williams felt she had nailed. Angry at his absence, she ripped off her wig. But Bellamy had already cast her, and Williams gave such a commanding title performance that the show was transferred a year later to St. Paul's Ordway Center.
"My theater world exploded then," Williams said. "I don't think I've been out of work since."
In spring 2009, she co-starred as the title character's spirited friend in "Caroline, or Change" at the Guthrie, a sold-out production staged by Marcela Lorca.
In fall of the same year, Williams headlined "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's play set in a brothel in the Congolese civil war zone, at Mixed Blood. She played Mama Nadi, the madam, and she dove deep into her cracked psyche.
"I don't mean to be glib, but that performance just ruined me," said "Dolly" director Kelli Foster Warder. "Regina's such an amazing actor and what I love about her is how she just transforms into anything."
When Foster Warder wanted to stage "Dolly," she wanted a strong woman like Dolly who gives other women control of their lives.
"So, I was asking who's the Bette Midler of the Twin Cities who can sing it, act it, move it with unrestrained joy? And regardless of race or background, Regina was that person," Foster Warder said.
Where there's a Will
Williams' mastery of Shakespeare is a remarkable story of an actor's continued growth at midlife and midcareer. In 2014, then Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling cast her as Emilia, Iago's wife, in "Othello."
"She was good, but it's not a role that defines the play," Dowling said. But it was an entrée, and she fully immersed herself, studying with voice teachers, vocal coaches and Shakespearean scholars. She would fall asleep reading Shakespeare and wake up to the Bard on her chest.
"It's kind of crazy but she doesn't just dip her toe into something, she dives deep," said current husband Tom Wallace, a former Star Tribune photo editor.
Shakespearean language, she quickly discovered, sounded like music to her. And she desperately wanted in on that song that is the heartbeat of Western theater.
Dowling cast her again as overthrown ruler Prospera, made female, in "The Tempest" in 2022. In the opening scene, she came out on a turntable to create a storm, an act that elicited rapturous applause.
"What's remarkable is how she combines her body, talent and that unique voice to create this extraordinary theatrical magic," Dowling said.
In 2023's "Hamlet," she performed exquisitely opposite a brooding emo turn by Michael Braugher, son of the late Emmy winner Andre Braugher, in the title role.
"Every mother has had this thing where they say, well, I've given my all over to everyone else, and now I'm going to focus on me," Williams said of Gertrude's choices. "It's just that they don't have to get married on the day that their son is going to his father's funeral."
When director Sarna Lapine tapped her for "Woods," she got an extra side of wit. Williams' Narrator shared her opinions about the goings-on with winks or arched brow. For example, there were repeated comments about blindness as punishment in the show, eliciting groans from the audience.
After the third or fourth time the comment was made, Williams shrugged her shoulders, the stage equivalent of an I-don't-know emoji.
"I was telling the audience I didn't write this stuff," Williams said. "They roared with laughter."
A proud 'artivist'
Theater has been a lifeline for Williams all her life, but it is not the only thing that sustains her.
She takes photographs of wildlife, capturing beauty and grace. She gardens, growing beans, melons, collards, broccoli and cauliflower. Her favorite new brassica is called Veronica.
"It's a cross between cauliflower and broccoli but sweeter," Williams said. "And it's delicious."
Williams also considers herself an "artivist," an arts activist who lives out her credo not just through her work onstage but through giving of herself. She wants arts to be available to all, and has become one of its biggest advocates in Minnesota.
"I found my people here," Williams said.
For the past seven years, she has teamed with veteran Guthrie actor Nathaniel Fuller, and other members of the cast and crew of "A Christmas Carol" to raise funds to fulfill a family's wishes for Christmas.
She also helps curate the George Floyd Global Memorial. And she quietly mentors numerous young people.
"Trying to make a difference makes me feel bigger than just my work," Williams said.
The year also has been marked by other losses and near-misses. Her primary Shakespearean teacher died. She totaled her car in an accident. And, in the fall, she had a heart attack that nearly killed her.
That stopped her from playing in "A Christmas Carol," but she has used the recovery time to brush up on her Shakespeare. Williams has been cast in "A Brittle Glory," Haj's marathon production of Shakespeare's history plays that previews in March.
She will be back onstage, the place where most people would feel most exposed but where Williams feels most at home.
"I am able to go to the theater and leave little ol' me and all my worries behind," Williams said. "I get to be someone else."
And that is some of the fuel for her total and exquisite commitment.