For just over 40 years, the Memphis Black Arts Alliance has nurtured artistic excellence by inspiring and educating artists, arts organizations, and audiences. As Executive Director, Lar’Juanette Williams is uniquely qualified to lead the oldest and most influential African American organization in Southwest Tennessee.
An award-winning singer, dancer, actress, and writer, Lar’Juanette spent 25 years away from her Memphis hometown exploring her talents. In her breakout performance, this “Memphis bred and cornbread fed” star toured the country in the lead role of Effie in DreamGirls, followed by acclaimed turns on the stage and in film and television. Meet the multi-talented FACE behind the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, Lar’Juanette Williams!
Can you tell us a little about your career before you started performing professionally?
I grew up with parents who had careers and instilled in me the necessity of marketable employment training. My undergraduate degree from the University of North Texas was in Communications/Speech. I learned a lot about marketing, speaking, and communications, and I used that to my advantage when applying for jobs.
I earned my Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California, came home for about a year and a half, and then left for Los Angeles — jumped off the cliff, if you will! But I only jumped halfway because when I got there, I started working for the City of Los Angeles.
My boss was City Councilman Michael Woo, who called for Police Chief Daryl Gates’ resignation after the Rodney King riots. I was a part of all of that drama. When Mike Woo ran for mayor, I was his liaison to the African American community in Los Angeles.
After that, I was tired and frustrated. I was ready to come back to Memphis when I got a wake-up call from God: “That’s not what I sent you to LA to do.” I was blessed with those jobs, but in reality, that was not what He moved me there to do.
What drew you to a career in the performing arts?
I am a true believer that what you do for a living must be innate for it to be authentic. We all have hobbies — I love to bowl, for example. But what you do for a living must be something you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is what you are created to do. And you are willing to do it even if you don’t make money because it is just who you are.
How did you land the role of Effie in DreamGirls?
A friend suggested I take classes. Actress Kim Fields taught the first, and the second was an improv class taught by Charles Nelson Reilly. Through the classes, I developed a little bit of confidence and decided to audition for a group that was preparing to workshop DreamGirls.
I arrived at my audition for the chorus an hour and a half early. I give students this advice: always get there early and get to know the people who are registering you. The registrar and I began to bond because I was there for so long, and I got to audition early. I was asked to stay and read for the role of understudy for Effie, then I got a callback, and then I was offered the understudy part!
I had to be at all the rehearsals, plus I was still working a full-time job that was an hour away. It got really tough. I showed up at every rehearsal and learned the blocking and lines. The principal in the role wasn’t doing her part. In fact, she was asking me to help her learn her choreography! The lead actress didn’t know her stuff and asked me — still working two jobs — to help her. Two weeks before the show began, the lead actress was released.
The producer told me, “You have worked hard and been at every rehearsal. Right now, you have the power to save this cast. Will you step up as Effie?”
I was worried because nobody knew me — I wasn’t a name that would draw a crowd. But he asked me to trust him, and I did. I went to New York, worked on the show for eight weeks, and then we toured for 17 months (with a couple of breaks).
What are some of your most memorable experiences?
I was in Florida doing a show when Tony Horne from the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre called. He and Harry Brice were doing a collaborative show of DreamGirls for Playhouse on the Square in 2000, and they needed an Effie. Antonio King, a friend who had played Curtis Taylor, Jr. in a different touring company, had the role of Curtis, so we had the chance to work together at last. That was my favorite time doing it because it was home and family, and I was excited to work with Antonio.
I had a small role in the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, which combined two things that I love: history and the chance to play someone real. I played a cousin of Medgar Evers in a courthouse scene. It was surreal to be surrounded by actors of such a high caliber at the top of their game. Alec Baldwin and Whoopi Goldberg stand out for being so genuinely kind.
I had small background parts in Seinfeld, which was fun. I especially enjoyed working with Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza. He and I came up with a pitch where George and I get married — of course, that never happened, but he was so much fun to work with.
What brought you back to Memphis?
My father died in 2012. My brother was checking on my mother to make sure she was ok and had what she needed. At the time, she was 83 and still wearing three-inch heels! When he got a bad prognosis in 2015, I knew the time was right to come home. I wanted to make sure she continued to live her best life, which she did right until she passed in 2021.
What did you do when you first moved back?
I called a friend who was working in human resources with the City of Memphis and said, “I need a job!” She suggested we pull from my old jobs, so I worked in the Comptroller’s Office.
I ran into Bennie Nelson West, the former ED of MBAA, at a friend’s performance. She told me she was retiring and looking for her successor. She asked if I would consider the job, and I said, “Absolutely not.”
She kept asking me to consider it, though. Three times. On the fourth time, I agreed to think about it. I prayed! I knew the Lord was telling me, “Yes,” because when I was 22 years old, I had a mentor with the Memphis Black Arts Alliance who helped me with funding for a show I’d written. God brought that back to my remembrance and that I would now be in a position to help other young artists.
What do you wish more people knew about MBAA?
I want people to know that we are committed to preserving the legacy of Memphis artists, as Memphis is where all American music began! MBAA is an advocate for artists. We fight for them and speak up for them. Our goal is to create opportunities for them to go places they’ve never been; to continue the legacy of greatness throughout the world. We are dedicated to preserving, promoting, and propelling all artists — performing, visual, writers, designers, and culinary.
What do you do for self-care?
I am a prayer. I talk to God all day, every day. That’s how I keep myself centered. I have morning quiet time and an evening debriefing — both are essential.
What is your best piece of advice?
Decree it, believe it, and see it.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Theatre and music, good food, and a fur baby.
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