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From Understudy to Leading Lady

Date: Jul 01, 2010


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Stars replace stars: That’s practically a rule in Broadway casting, and for the most part, that’s the story with David Mamet’s Race. The successful play, about lawyers representing a white man accused of attacking a black woman, welcomed its first replacement cast members last month, trading stars James Spader and David Alan Grier for famous actors Eddie Izzard and Dennis Haysbert, respectively.

But there was a third new cast member who defied tradition.

When Race began performances last November, film star Kerry Washington played Susan, a young African-American attorney, and when she exited the show last month, she didn’t get replaced by an Emmy winner or an Oscar nominee. Instead, her role went to her understudy, Afton C. Williamson.

Williamson was surprised to get the news. She says, “It was almost a week before it came out in the press, and I didn’t sign a contract right away, so for a while, I thought, ‘Did I dream that?’”

She’s learned there are advantages to starting as an understudy. For instance, most Broadway actors only get a few weeks to learn their parts, but Williamson had eight months of regular rehearsals. That helped her internalize the complicated script. “First, you’ve got to embody the language,” she says. “Then you have to master the legal jargon, then you have to know your motivations. It’s like weeks for each level. [The understudies] would touch up on our scripts outside rehearsal, which would really develop not just my understanding of my character, but my relationships to everyone else.”

Of course, you can’t learn everything in rehearsal, and even though Williamson went on for Washington twice, she’s just now getting used to playing Susan in front of an audience. It’s changing how she sees the play.

“Yes, I’ve been rehearsing on this stage, but not with people,” she says. “It forces me to listen so hard, so there’s nothing there but the show, and not those 1,100 people out there. I think that’s why I’ve learned so much about the play and heard these new moments.”

For one thing, the actress has a new take on Susan’s tense relationship with Henry Brown (Haysbert), an older lawyer in the firm. “The relationship between Henry and Susan is so much more than the case,” she says. “It’s two African-American people from different eras. He sees her as someone who’s coming in on affirmative action, and she’s looking at him like, ‘Where’s your watermelon?’ I don’t think any of us saw that in the script when we started.”

Williamson assumes she’ll keep finding new things. “It’s like hearing a song every day and then suddenly hearing a guitar part for the first time,” she says. “It’s the same thing you’ve been listening to, but it just keeps revealing new dimensions.”


Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor