Understudy Hall: ‘Race”s Afton C. Williamson is no longer a clenched fist
Every day, understudies hope to go on in the role they cover. Yet as much as that is the desire they obsess over, the even greater dream is to take over the part permanently. Understudy veteran Afton C. Williamson’s dream came to fruition on June 15 when she stepped into the role of Susan in David Mamet’s legal drama Race for the remainder of its run. Understudying Kerry Washington since Race began previews in November, Williamson will stay with the production through its August 21 closing date. Already an experienced understudy from last year’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Williamson sat down with Stage Rush to discuss achieving the ultimate understudy dream.
How does it feel to go from understudying a role to taking it on as your own?
Surreal. As an understudy, you usually only get a performance or two, if that. When I did Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, I didn’t get any performances. I was understudying three women, and it was a wonderful experience. All of them became some of my best friends in the world. To come through all this and to still keep building people in New York, it’s always good to have people around you who get it.
This is a situation that not many understudies find themselves in.
Being with Race for seven months and listening to it every night and seeing over 200 shows, all of that has really just prepared for this moment. But I didn’t know it when it was in existence. There were days where I was like, “Man, I really wanted to go on stage tonight, but OK.” You just do it. It’s the craziest job in the world. You just got to be ready at any moment, but as actors, all the gratification is when we’re on stage. But as an understudy, you don’t get to act. You work up all this stuff every day and then you don’t get a release. The actors on stage get the release. I kind of go home like this—(m,akes a clenched fist). You’re like, “Maybe once! Maybe once!” When we have understudy rehearsals, that’s when all the understudies get the opportunity to let it all out. I think it’s going to be exciting to have that experience every night.
How have rehearsals changed for you, since you’ve taken over the role?
With any role, when another actor is playing it, when it comes out of their mouth, it’s going to be completely different. Impacting my character, hearing it differently, or coming from a different angle has definitely impacted Susan. I go home with new stuff, new nuances every night, thinking, “That’s interesting! I never thought about that line like that before.”
You’ve gone on twice for Kerry Washington. Tell me about the first experience.
The first time was February 24, and it was planned. That was the first payoff in my entire understudy experience in New York. It was the pot of gold at the end. It was my mom’s birthday. It all coincided; the stars aligned. I flew her out here, because I got to know in advance, which was the sweet part. All my Joe Turner people came. It was sweet, because there was so much support. Nobody in New York had really seen me do anything. I kept getting these jobs based on my audition work, but a lot of my friends never understood what I was doing. For them to see it, they were like, “This is your time.” It was surreal. I was nervous as heck when the lights went up. You realize in that moment that this is the biggest audience you’ve ever played for, and that this isn’t an understudy rehearsal.
People are usually disappointed when understudy cards fall out of a Playbill. What are your thoughts on that?
The second time I went on for Kerry Washington, it was early this month. It was so last minute, there wasn’t a chance to put the “At This Performance” notices inside the Playbills. It was very impromptu and things were crazy. The stage manager had to announce it, which they don’t like to do, because of the bad response. So the curtain’s down, I’m on stage with James Spader, David Alan Grier, and Richard Thomas, and we hear him say, “The role of Susan, usually played by Kerry Washington, will be played by Afton Williamson.” And we heard the audience go, “Ugh, for real?” All the guys on stage were just like, “PSSSHHHH!” We were kind of having a party. And that made me feel better. That just fueled the fire, because I was thinking ‘You’ll get your money’s worth. We’ll see what you say at the end.’
I saw Afton in the role of Susan on June 16 and thought she was OK…then I saw her again on June 20 and she was excellent. It was amazing how those couple of performances really allowed her to free herself from any nervousness or doubt. The first performance I saw both she and Ray Anthony Thomas (David Alan Grier’s understudy) seemed tentative and did not command the stage, but four days and five performances later they were forceful and did a wonderful job. Best wishes to her for the rest of her run; she is a very talented actress.
It’s great to hear from someone who has seen her perform! It’s really exciting to watch an actor grow in a role. It’s very interesting that you went back to see the show within such a short time period. What inspired that? And it’s definitely great to hear you say Afton made a huge improvement. And whoa—a performance with two understudies?! That must have made for some interesting sentiments, in both the house seats and back stage—something this series is always aiming to explore.
My apologies for not responding sooner. I saw the play twice during that week because it was the last week for James Spader and I wanted to catch his performance a few more times before he left the show. I knew that Afton C. Williamson and Ray Anthony Thomas were going to be doing the roles that week until the new cast took over the following Monday. I truthfully was a little disappointed after Wednesday’s performance…everyone seemed to be working with less intensity than normal. Thus when Sunday’s performance rolled around I wasn’t expecting the electricity I experienced at previous performances I had attended featuring the full original cast…well, I could not have been more wrong. The new players were up for the challenge and Spader and Thomas were ruling the boards once again. The original members seemed to tone back their performances when the new members were first added, but realized they could go for it in spite of the change. It really was a wonderful performance by one and by all.
Afton is beyond wonderful, she has come a long way since her understudy days. Talented, a master of accents, a true actor in the rare form.