Vanessa Williams talks George Floyd and combating systematic oppression: ‘I was numb for days then it all turns to anger’

EXCLUSIVE: Williams returned to her theater roots to bring awareness to systemic racism

When civil unrest dominated the country on the heels of George Floyd’s murder, Vanessa Williams began to think of ways she could use her platform to bring awareness to systemic racism.

When Williams spoke to theGrio from her home in Chappaqua, New York, she opened up about how she decided to use the performing arts to express her pain and offer healing the best way she knew how.

“When I first started watching the video, I was stunned but thought to myself ‘he isn’t going to die,’” admitted Williams in regards to the video featuring Derek Chauvin with his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck moments before he died.

“I was numb for days then it all turns to anger, rage and outrage.”

Sheen Center Presents Vanessa Williams & Friends: Thankful For Christmas With Guests Norm Lewis, Michael Urie, And Bernie Williams
Vanessa Williams performs during the Sheen Center presents Vanessa Williams

Read More: George Floyd’s brother says trial against Chauvin should be a ‘slam dunk’

Williams said she then received a call from fellow actress and friend Audra McDonald who was equally upset and motivated to take action.

Together, they formed a group with over a dozen other Black theater actors such as Wendell Pierce, Norm Lewis, Allyson Tucker and created Black Theatre United (BTU). The organization’s mission is to combat systematic racism and influence reform within the theater industry and across the country.

Williams explained that before they took the stage, the group held discussions to understand better why Black people are still fighting for fundamental human and civil rights. During one of the group’s earliest town halls, they called in experts such as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill, and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams.

These ladies broke down how specific laws in our country and voter suppression help feed racism and uphold white supremacy. Williams recalled learning from their meetings how small details like the United States Census can make a big difference in the Black community.

Read More: Former officer’s trial in George Floyd’s death gets underway

“If you aren’t counted in the census, you can’t get a grocery store in your community. If you aren’t counted, you won’t get more money for your school system because they don’t know that you are there,” explained Williams.

She adds that simply “showing up” to your school’s district board meetings matters. “If they see two Black people in the audience, that makes a difference.”

Black Theatre United (BTU)

Armed with knowledge, the group took action and teamed up with Republic Records Action Committee (R2AC), a task force aimed to combat social justice, and created a video and track titled “Stand For Change.

The song and video are made up of an ensemble of Black producers, musicians, and performers. Williams shared they also wanted to use the project to highlight performers who came before them, such as Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier.

“Stand for change is basically what we do as an organization,” said Williams. She adds that the organization is passionate about seeing a change across the theatre industry from staffing to casting to theater ownership.

“100% of the net proceeds of the track will all go back in to fuel the organization’s social justice mission,” said Williams. “The greatest thing that came out of all this turmoil is a giant reset button because people are aware now and some are forced to make change and many are willing to make a change.”

Williams concluded the conversation, saying, “Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice, and now it’s time to make that choice.”

You can watch the full performance of BTU’s “Stand For Change” below.

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