As Williams slips into the supporting role of harmonica player Canewell in Arena Stage’s production of “Seven Guitars” — August Wilson’s 1948-set drama about a blues singer recently released from prison — he is tackling a part he’s had his eye on since the play premiered in 1995. Now, Williams is confident that his offstage career in the intervening years will enrich his performance on it.
“All of the coat-and-tie gigs that I’ve had to do to maintain my life, all of these experiences with all of these different types of people, have helped me,” Williams says. “When I find myself playing a particular character, it enables me to give that character more levels and more colors.”
“He’s a very passionate man, and he’s a big man,” adds “Seven Guitars” co-star David Emerson Toney, who is appearing in his third Wilson play alongside Williams. “I don’t mean physically: He’s a big man because I don’t think one occupation could contain him.”
Williams originally planned to major in theater arts at Beloit College in Wisconsin before his parents redirected his studies toward sociology and economics. But after working at the Boston Foundation, Williams moved to Chicago and took a class offered by the Second City, the renowned improv and comedy institution, where he recalls his teacher, Steve Carell, pulling him aside after a mere three weeks. “What are you doing in my class?” Carell told him. “You need to be performing.” A couple of years later, when André De Shields directed Williams in a Chicago production of “The Colored Museum,” words of support from the Broadway legend motivated him to commit to his craft for good.
Stints living in Los Angeles, New York and Blacksburg — where he taught acting at Virginia Tech — followed. Eventually, Williams settled in the D.C. area to be closer to his daughter, Margarita, amid a difficult divorce and custody battle.
“My whole world has been reimagined by this beautiful soul,” he says of Margarita, now 16. “I’m a better man, I’m a better human being and I’m a [expletive] better actor since this young lady has come into my life.”
In need of stable income, like many working artists, Williams took a position with GMU’s Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence on a three-year project. The job required him to regularly travel to Baltimore to interview former inmates, including convicted murderers, about their time in prison. Although Williams calls it a “brutal job,” he acknowledges it helped imbue his performances in certain plays with greater humanity — including roles in Wilson’s “Fences,” “Jitney,” “Two Trains Running,” “King Hedley II” and, now, “Seven Guitars,” all of which feature ex-convict characters attempting to rebuild their lives.
“What was reinforced with this job with George Mason is that there are bad people, and then there are people who make bad decisions,” Williams explains. “And often one is misconstrued for the other. They’re just lumped into one big group, and that’s not fair.
“A lot of the things that I’m using when I do August Wilson’s work, and I play some of these characters, undoubtedly is from my experience sitting in the old Baltimore city jail talking to people. I mean, there’s just no way in the world that I could not draw on that while creating these characters.”
“Seven Guitars” focuses on Floyd (played by Roderick Lawrence at Arena), an ambitious musician with a chance to sign a record deal after serving a 90-day prison sentence. In playing Floyd’s philosophizing friend and bandmate Canewell — who, like the rest of the figures in the play, is struggling to get by — Williams gravitated to the character’s Louisiana roots, and drew parallels from his own FEMA experience helping people in the state impacted by Hurricane Ida.
“The pain that I was dealing with on a consistent basis — 12, 14 hours a day, seven days a week — from people who are dealing with the scab of poverty being ripped open by Ida, the only way that I was able to do that work was to find a way to help it prepare me for ‘Seven Guitars,’ ” Williams says. “Every painful male voice that I heard calling in to check on the status of their application for assistance, I was looking and listening for Canewell.”
Although Williams says he was concerned that he was too old to play Canewell (a role originated on Broadway by a then-39-year-old Ruben Santiago-Hudson), director Tazewell Thompson dwelled less on the actor’s age and more on his charisma. When it comes to keeping the mood upbeat backstage or in the rehearsal hall, Thompson says, “You can always count on Michael to have a story.”
“As an actor, while he brings his craft and his talents and skills, I can see that the arsenal, the ammunition, of what he has experienced as a criminology researcher and as a person working for FEMA certainly enters into the world,” Thompson says. “There’s a sense of compassion about the character that he represents in the play. Yes, it’s acting, of course, but there’s something more than that. He’s bringing that background to the play, and it’s making a very sharp difference.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.
Dates: Through Dec. 26.