“Abbott Elementary” is currently one of America’s favorite shows as creator Quinta Brunson’s envisioning of a Philadelphia elementary/middle school brings comedy together with a dose of realism. One of the show’s stars is Tyler James Williams who portrays Gregory Eddie, a substitute teacher who eventually joins the school teaching staff full-time. While Williams is well known for his leading role as a child in the sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris,” he is also known for his role in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Disney’s “Let It Shine,” Justin Simien’s 2014 film “Dear White People,” and much more.
Due to the resurging excitement around Williams, it is fitting that he was pursued to be a keynote speaker for a celebration of Black History Month at UW-Madison’s Union South on the night of March 22. The event, which saw over 700 enthusiastic fans fill Varsity Hall, was held by the Black Cultural Center, the Black History Month Planning Committee, and other partners across campus and was called “A Conversation with Tyler James Williams.”
Williams raised the energy in the room with his presence, similar to that of the icons he first gave praise to for inspiring his path such as Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington. While reflecting on his career so far, one venture stood out specifically.
“I think one that was really important was ‘Dear White People,’” said Williams in response to special moments in his time acting. “I learned how to take a risk on that one. When we did ‘Dear White People,’ it was 2012, I believe. We live right now in an era where conversations about how Black people are seen and portrayed in living in spaces that aren’t really built for them. It’s very easy to talk about nowadays. In 2012, that was not the case.”
Williams spoke of how important it was to him to grow through a role that allowed him to engage with ideas and topics that, “…could have ended all of our careers.”
Luckily the movie was not a road bump in Williams’s career, and on the contrary, helped platform the name and status of popular show and film producer Lena Waithe. Williams discussed how working on shows such as “Abbott Elementary” and “Everybody Hates Chris” had a certain element of comfortability as shows centered around Black families and communities with Black voices leading creative and artistic direction. The reactions to the widely-loved “Abbott Elementary” serve as a type of validation and vindication for Williams who was present at the Golden Globe Awards almost two decades ago for his work on “Everybody Hates Chris.” Williams scored his first Golden Globes trophy in January — best supporting actor in a musical, comedy or drama award for his role in “Abbott Elementary.”
“To come back almost 20 years later, it was less about me and more about the progress that we had made,” Williams expressed. “That’s what I felt …. that when Abbott walked into the room, we were seen as not the exception to the rule, but at the caliber of everything else. That wasn’t the case 15 years ago.”
While Williams reflected on the experiences of Blackness in the entertainment industry, he was vocal about the necessity of roles that represent the community in an authentic and intentional way. His advice around not being disappointed in taking time to achieve success in whatever medium you choose to express yourself through is something he has evidently followed through his journey.
“Honestly, the most important part is that I get to go on this ride with people that I really like,” said Williams, remembering the joy he has felt seeing fellow “Abbott” stars such as Quinta Brunson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Janelle James being nominated and winning awards.
“I’ve had hits before that, it was a job. You work it, you do good work, it does well and it’s cool. Not always do you get a chance to do it with people that you really, really want to see win,” he added. “When Sheryl won the Emmy, I was hyped. When Quinta won, I was hyped. When Janelle got nominated, I was hyped. There’s nothing like seeing your people win and come up and thrive.”
Williams reflected on how risk has played an important role in his acting career so far, and how even “Abbott” at one time was just an idea brought to him by his friend Quinta. Of course, along with risk, it is also important to do what is best for yourself when you need to. This was the lasting message Williams left as he reminded the audience that chasing success can lead to burnout or dissatisfaction if it is not done with the right purpose in mind.
“What you do, does not define you. What you do is not who you are. You need to be able to fill your cup as a person,” he said. “I learned you can’t pour from an empty cup, so breaks are very important. Embrace it when it’s chill.”