The revival for the TONY-nominated For Colored Girls is back on Broadway 45 years after its debut. Trenton Journal recently had the opportunity to sit down with Bisa and Paul Williams, the late Ntozake Shange’s younger brother and sister as they honor their sister’s legacy and share their rich Trenton history, which includes dinner parties with the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Paul Williams, Sr. was a surgeon and Eloise Williams, was an educator who encouraged their four children to explore the arts and community service. Each one of Ntozake's younger siblings graduated from Ivy league schools and went on to distinguished careers of their own. Find out how the capital city laid the groundwork for their family's success.
How do you feel about the Broadway revival For Colored Girls? And how is this different from the original version?
Paul Williams (Brother): It was a dream and ambition of Ntozake to bring the play back to broadway for the 45th anniversary and she was working hard towards it before she passed away. In fact, one of the things that was so amazing was that she had picked out Camille Brown to be involved in the production. At the time it was in regard to choreography, but she had pictured Camille as a rising talent and wanted her involved in the production. So that is one of the neat things that developed over time. Not only has Camille been involved, but she's actually directing and the choreographer [the first Black woman to serve as choreographer and director on a Broadway production in more than 65 years] for the new revival.
Bisa Williams ( Sister): I, too, am really excited, basically with what Paul is saying that Zake would have been thrilled. I'm thrilled, because I have met women from other generations who say they performed the play in college. I've met so many Black and white women and Brown women who said, 'We did this play.' And to see that it's going back to Broadway and to see that it will have the same resonance now with even another generation of women is very exciting for me.
For those who didn’t have an opportunity to meet your sister, could you tell us what she was like as a person?
Bisa Williams: ...My sister, she was brilliant, she had a great sense of humor. She was very forceful, without being imposing. She had a vision in her head of what she wanted and she was going to do that. She never went around bossing people around saying 'you have to do this or that,' she just went for her goals.
Paul Williams: Brilliant is the word I would use to describe Zake, but it wasn’t just her brilliance, it was her insightfulness. She had a tremendous insight into people and into circumstances and I think that’s one of things that transfers into her work.
How did your parents play a role in your success and what was it like growing up in Trenton?
Bisa Williams: We moved from St. Louis to what we called “The Sticks,” but it was Lawrence Township at the time, it wasn’t even named Lawrenceville. There was a cornfield in the back of our house, there were no sidewalks on the streets. Our first adaptation to being back home was a little rough—we didn’t have any friends immediately. [At the time] they were integrating the school in Lawrence and it was not that nice for me, at least.
Paul Williams: Everyone in Trenton knew my father, even today I see people whose parents or themselves might’ve been delivered by my dad. Our social setting was always Trenton, it wasn’t Lawrence. What I do remember about Trenton before we moved to Lawrence was that we lived at 626 Perry Street— my father had a house and his medical office was inside the house. It was a very warm environment, my mom and dad would host parties, we were a very social family.
How much do you contribute Trenton to who you are today?
Paul Williams: I have a strong sense of the importance of Trenton in my development, because that was the center of my social development. Most of my friends were in the Trenton community and when I was in high school I spent a summer at the East Trenton neighborhood community center. I worked there with my cousin and we put on a cultural festival. We [also] did a poll of the East Trenton community to try and understand what the community needs were. When we finished the poll we wrote up a nice report and one of the key things the poll said was that folks wanted more recreational areas. They didn't have enough parks or basketball courts.
Bisa Williams: Our father had a Sunday free clinic [in Trenton]. To get it ready I was with Dad as we were painting walls and doing everything before the big grand opening. Dad called around to other doctors, his colleagues to explain what he was doing and none of the other doctors wanted to [help]. They didn't want to give away their services for free, but he did get some nurses from Mercer and Hamilton hospital to support the Sunday free clinic. My father grew up very poor in Lakewood, New Jersey and he felt that health services were a right. Our economic privileges didn’t separate us from humanity, and particularly from other Black people. I used what’s the best in me to help someone else.