Don’t know the name “Khalisa Rae Williams” yet? Well, sit tight because she is on a roll and gaining momentum for her prolific works that will be released within the first two months of 2018. Williams has built a following already in ILM with her open-mic poetry sessions at Bottega, not to mention writing “Real Girls Have Real Problems” in 2012 and launching a new business with the up-and-coming Athenian Press and Workshops in 2018—a femme-centered bookstore she founded with Lori Wilson and Daisuke Shen. She also will debut her creative brand Khalisa & Co. on January 7—the same day she makes her directorial debut with her play, “The 7 Deadly Sins of Being a Woman,” at Cape Fear Playhouse.
“The play was inspired by my book, ‘Real Girls Have Real Problems,’” Williams tells encore. “My book is essentially a collection of my perspective of being a woman in this society and the affect of popular culture on me—everything from my disdain for director Tyler Perry, to my frustration about the concept that all girls should grow up to be ‘princesses,’ to my childhood of growing up reading Seventeen and Vogue, to writing a poem inspired by rapper Lil Wayne’s ‘Blood Diamonds.’”
The transition from writer to playwright is a natural one for Williams. She is classically trained in dance, musical theatre, acting, and singing and has been performing since age 7. She even began her college career at UNCW, with hopes of becoming a professional actress. But the written word took hold instead, and she went to N.C. A&T University for her B.A. in creative writing. After graduating from Queens University with a masters in poetry, she managed and founded a women’s poetry and performance nonprofit, Poet.she. Then off she went across the U.S. to tour as a poet.
At UNCW, Williams helped with Eve Ensler’s famed production “Vagina Monologues.” Working on the show of vignettes—featuring women worldwide who openly and honestly discuss everyday obstacles and even the barbarity they face in a patriarch-ruled society—inspired Williams to look closer at her writings as a collective, told from varied perspectives of the female truth. She also adored the choreo-poem “For Colored Girls,” which includes dance, music, song, spoken word, etc. From those inspirations, Williams began devising seven themes for her play—a.k.a. the seven deadly sins of women. They surround ideas and concepts that have kept females silent for a long time, whether from shame or fear of not being believed. More so, they’re themes at the forefront of every news channel, social-media feed, dinner table, and magazine cover from 2017 (and likely in 2018): sexism/harassment, misogyny/racism/colorism, body image/self-esteem/beauty myth, bigotry/hate crimes, sexual assault/domestic violence, sexuality, identity, and self harm/mental illness.
“As we have seen [most recently,] women are feeling comfortable sharing their stories, but also more cases are being brought to light,” Williams tells. “Because of the rape culture that seems to be perpetuated in the White House, and also in institutions, homes, sports teams, and more, it is time women speak up about the atrocities they find embarrassing or shameful. It is so important to voice their trauma, to in turn be free of things that for so long have held them captive. Our hope is by speaking truthfully, other women will find courage and bravery to speak, get the healing and help they need, and live full whole lives.”
Alongside codirector and cowriter Melissa Randall, Williams cast more than a dozen women in her debut: Charlon Turner, Regina McCleod, Lily Nicole Nelson, Susan Auten, Terry Batson, Lauren Busch, Nathalie McCall, Mariah Hossan, Maria Chandler, Jazzmin Moore, Christina Miller, Joanna G. Stotts, and Luis Gonzaga. The powerful actresses—some of whom are femme-identified queer individuals—will talk about a multitude of experiences. Stories range from coming out to a mother, losing her virginity, experiencing date rape, undergoing racism and sexism in the classroom, and even visiting a sex shop for the first time.
“The stories are gripping, comical, soul-wrenching, and heart-warming,” Williams describes. “The women will be reading selected poems from ‘Real Girls…’ and my forthcoming book, ‘Southern Belles Burning,’ but the most thrilling part of the play, I think, is the fact women will be sharing personal narratives and monologues based on the seven themes within the play.”
The stage for the show will be minimally set—much like “Vagina Monologues.” Williams wants emphasis put toward words and their power.
“Essentially, my favorite type of play is one that is a series of poems and monologues that doesn’t rely on props, set design, transitions or costume,” she tells. “The play is heavily reliant on the stories—uninhibited, unfiltered stories that will capture the audience, not fancy costumes, props and sound effects.”
However, the stage won’t be a complete blank slate. It will include art from a local feminist artist, a slide-show projection, and color/lighting splashes. “Melissa will be doing sound,” Williams notes. “The Big Dawg staff will assist with lighting and stage; [cast members] Maria, Jazzmin, and Lily will help with lighting and tech because they work at Thalian Hall and Hannah Block Community Arts, which is where we have been holding our rehearsals. Set design will be a collaborative effort.”
The play runs for one night only, January 7; though, it won’t be the end of Williams’ work in 2018.
Under her creative brand Khalisa and Co.—which will produce media, content and exhibitions that highlight and uplift women and femmes of color—a Real Girls blog and 7 Deadly Sins podcast will begin. Williams has many performances lined up, too, including one with Brittany Patterson from The Dance Cooperative at the Cameron Art Museum. They’re doing excerpts from their dance/poetry piece, “The Invisibility Project,” which they showcased at SARUS last fall. It is based on the Wilmington Riots of 1898.
“The Cape Fear Museum will be partnering with me to do a Black History Month event based on black authors in New Hanover County and surrounding areas that focus on place, history and location,” Williams says. Williams and local author/storyteller Delthea Simmons are slated to curate the event.
Williams will open the doors to Athenian Bookstore and Press at 2231 Wrighsville Avenue at the beginning of February before applying for artist fellowships and seeking funding for her first full-length book “Black and Queer in the South.” She also will launch a Brown Girl Brunch series with writer friend Nicole Nichols.
“We will be hosting quarterly brunches in the Triad to bring women of color writers together,” Williams says. “No one is doing that right now, and we really want to provide a place for women writers to share stories, network and mingle. That will take place in the RDU in February or March.”