Williams heads to Montreal this week as recipient of yet another big honour: Black Theatre Workshop's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award.
by David King
From her early days on TV's Polka Dot Door to producing and directing shows like Da Kink In My Hair and CBC's Gospel Jubilee, actress Tonya Lee Williams is one of Canada's few artists of colour who has successfully held down a career in Canada while keeping things real amidst the trappings of L.A.
The founder of Toronto's ReelWorld Film Festival, which provides opportunities for artists of colour to create film and television, Williams has kept the festival going strong for over a decade. Having dedicated her life to stage and screen since graduating from Ryerson in the late 1970s, she's showing us how positive focus, hard work and devotion to one's craft can truly pave the way to change.
Oscar Peterson, Djanet Sears and George Elliot Clarke are just a few of the previous inductees.
So what's it like to receive two Emmy nominations as Dr. Olivia Barber Winters on TV's The Young and The Restless, you may ask?
"All you can hope for," says Williams, "is that the storyline is going to be good going into the show, that you get to work with so-and-so, et cetera. And then you get a call that you're nominated for an Emmy. And then up until the awards, it becomes this huge process - parties, lunches - it's great."
Williams heads to Montreal this week as recipient of yet another big honour: Black Theatre Workshop's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award. The prize honours artists' contributions to African-Canadian artistic and cultural expression and development. Oscar Peterson, Djanet Sears and George Elliot Clarke are just a few of the previous inductees. Two young artists will also be presented with awards at BTW's 26th Vision Gala, which in turn launches Black History Month.
...there is an uplifting optimism to Williams' approach towards acting...
While one might expect Williams to have overcome some major obstacles to garner awards of such distinction, she admits none of it was done consciously. Au contraire, there is an uplifting optimism to Williams' approach towards acting that has always bypassed the nay saying and frustrations of trying to make it in a white world, and it's a core value she maintains today.
"I started out carefree-go-lucky, then became driven 24/7," says Williams. "I came from a time when working was simply enough. And because I was only 16 years old or so when I started, I wasn't aware of how few roles were actually out there. Yes, I saw people grieve about the things they didn't get and become negative about it, but it never seemed valuable to me to create that mindset that stuck you in a world where everyone was against you. To me, when you get stuck there, it's almost impossible to get to where you need to be".
Eventually getting the chance to meet Carroll, it was an unforgettable day for Williams.
Like many black actors, Williams can trace her childhood acting inspirations back to legends like Sydney Poitier. But it was actress Dihann Carroll, she says, who she most fell in love with onscreen. Carroll, a stage and screen star, broke new ground in 1968 in Julia, one of the first series on American television to star a black woman in a non-stereotypical role. Eventually getting the chance to meet Carroll, it was an unforgettable day for Williams.
"I didn't meet her until I was in my 50s," says Williams, "but it was one of those amazing moments where you get to tell someone how much they impacted your life. The landscape was different when I started out, it was all about drugs and hardships. I remember watching her [Carroll] play this nurse, a single widow in a private clinic, and the whole set. At that time, women were maids sitting around rolling their eyes. She was stunning, and it made me so proud to be a black woman and see how powerful the [television] medium can be."
In Hollywood, Williams has done stints on some of TV's 'honkiest' shows like Hill Street Blues, Matlock and Falcon Crest. Why, she even played Cindy Brady's roommate in A Very Brady Christmas. For her most known role on Young and the Restless from 1990 to 2005, (returning stints since 2008), she accredits her Daytime Emmy nods to the visionary magic of Y&R and Bold and the Beautiful creator William Bell, who passed away in 2005. Bell, explains Williams, is a great example of how one person can change everything for artists of colour.
"There was one other black character in my early days on Y&R named Bill Nathan," Williams comments, "but Bill Bell decided to bring in an entire family that would eventually parallel with the Newman family. So I was part of this huge group - an aunt, a sister, myself, things just kept evolving. It wouldn't have happened with only one or two actors, and when Bill brought in that entire family from 1990 to 2005, it made a major impact on the show that has never been the same since."
In the late 1990s, Williams also became more aware of L.A.'s own segregated climate...
Y&R gave Williams an opportunity to breathe a little easier financially, along with the chance to re-evaluate Canada's brain drain of artistry moving to the U.S. Although Williams knew she couldn't get people jobs in L.A., she did know how film festivals could be a terrific launching pad for the artists who kept asking her how they too could make it happen in the City of Angels. In the late 1990s, Williams also became more aware of L.A.'s own segregated climate when her own soirées became fantastic melting pots of houseguests.
Toronto's ReelWorld, born in 2001, developed from that reawakening of sorts, and Williams is thrilled to have godmothered some of Canada's burgeoning artists of colour ever since.
Ironically, the pragmatic Williams observes, she doubts she would pursue acting if she was just starting out today. As she explains, the 'business' of television has become all about ambition and money, something she sees too often behind the rose-coloured glasses of emerging artists.
It truly is about navigating your career in what is sellable.
"I try to ask artists how they are going to get from where they are standing to where they think they want to be," says Williams, "and where in the world they can make that happen, whether it's in Canada or elsewhere. It truly is about navigating your career in what is sellable. We all have a person inside us that is different when you look in the mirror, and I think it's about wearing the same pair of eyes as how other people see you.
"It's also about likeability," concludes Williams. "I see it when I audition people now. You can feel an energy when someone walks in a room and they just exude this joy, and it's those people I can't get out of my head. I'm drawn to them. When it's your job, as prepared as you can be, there's just a magical element that releases you when you are likeable and charismatic. And if they really want you, they'll really want you."