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Race - Broadway

Eddie Izzard and Dennis Haysbert star in David Mamet's new play.

Afton C. Williamson Races Ahead From Understudy to Leading Lady

Afton C. Williamson Races Ahead From Understudy to Leading Lady
Afton C. Williamson in 'Race'
I'm always shocked that now people are calling my name. It’s amazing!

Age: 25

Hometown: Toledo, Ohio

Currently: Playing lawyer-in-training Susan in David Mamet’s Race, after understudying the role for seven months

Three Going on 30: At a young age Williamson watched soap operas with her grandmother and noticed the actors’ ability to eat and speak at the same time. “I always thought, ‘That’s what acting is…it’s eating but talking and not looking like you’re eating,'” Williamson says with a laugh. At dinnertime, she would practice cutting her food into tiny pieces while speaking like an adult. “I’d say things like ‘Oh darling, it was great today at the meeting,’ and I always thought the word ‘verbatim’ was really intense so I’d eat one noodle at a time and say ‘verbatim, darling, verbatim,’” she recalls. Along with singing in the church choir and performing in Easter and Christmas pageants, Williamson found a creative outlet writing for a furry audience. “I would write plays in my room and perform in front of my teddy bear collection. Usually it happened when my mom would send me to my room, so I’d write the extended scene of what I would have said to her, like, ‘I shouldn’t have had to eat Brussels sprouts!’”

Magic To Do: In high school, Williamson worked part-time and was unable to participate in schools plays, despite her passion for performing. Enrolling as a theater major at Eastern Michigan University, she auditioned for every show possible, beginning with Pippin. “I didn’t even know Pippin was a musical,” she comments on her unpreparedness. “I got in there and sang 'Happy Birthday' [at my audition]. I don’t know if they just loved the fact that I had the balls to sing that, but they loved it.” Williamson was cast as a Player and eventually headlined six of the eight shows she appeared in. For her senior thesis the actress took on directing with For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. “There wasn’t a huge African-American population in the theater program, but there was one on campus, so I thought if we could mix the two, that’s what [theater] is about.” The resourceful Williamson walked around campus with a bullhorn, reciting the show’s monologues and urging people to audition.

Always the Understudy: At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's graduate program, she found herself in a role she would become all too familiar with: understudying. “It just fueled me,” Williamson says of standing by so much. Upon moving to New York, Williamson booked her first Broadway gig, understudying the three female leads in Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Her agent didn’t think she’d be up for the task, but she reminded him of her extensive background in being ready to go on at a moment's notice: “If anything, I’m a pro at this.” When Joe Turner ended, Williamson headed to an open call to (you guessed it!) understudy, this time for film star Kerry Washington in David Mamet’s Race, a taut drama about a team of lawyers defending a  Caucasian man (Richard Thomas) accused of raping an unseen African-American woman. Soon she was in front of Mamet himself. “He told me I did a phenomenal job,” she says with pride. "I didn’t need to get the job; that was enough for me.” Before she could even get on her train home, Williamson’s phone rang with news she’d landed the part.

Moving On Up: Williamson got her first chance to step onstage in Race in February…and it just happened to be on her mom’s birthday! Since she knew in advance that Washington would be out, she was able to fly Mom in for the big night. "My friends would say, 'She’s always on Broadway but never on stage,'" Williamson says of an understudy's plight. "That was the first time they’d seen me actually do anything, and it was one of the best nights of my life." When Race announced it would extend after its original stars left, Williamson never considered she could move up full time. “I had no clue! Every night I would go to the show, sit and listen to the play and then I go home. That was my job.” The producers later told her, however, that after seeing her onstage, they knew they'd have to look no further for their second Susan. (Times critic Ben Brantley agreed, declaring her performance better than Washington's.)

Food for Thought: After more than seven months listening to and performing Mamet's drama, Williamson remains fascinated with Race. “I don't know how many times I've called my mother up to tell her all my new theories about the play," the actress says. "I've heard people talking about it in Starbucks after the show and an hour later, they're still debating." Having performed with two casts, Williamson marvels at the ability of different actors to create "a whole new dynamic" onstage. "To me, that's powerful." Of course, it's also fun to be asked for an autograph at the stage door rather than "just trying to cut out and head to the train because you're the understudy. I'm always shocked that now people are calling my name. It’s amazing! I dreamed of this when I was three with my teddy bears.”

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