Life is a series of realizations. You're peeling off layer after layer to get to where you belong — to be the fullest expression of who you are, what you do, and how you engage with the world.

Jaye Austin Williams

Life — and learning — are messy, according to Professor Jaye Austin Williams. And that's a good thing, she says.

Williams views the classroom as a metaphorical "mud pit," where students should feel free to "roll around" and explore new ideas without fear of saying the wrong thing, which can be a real concern when the course material revolves around issues of race.

"It's all about the grapple," Williams says. "Let's sit in the mess together and try to sort things out. And let's welcome the mistakes and stumbles. We have an opportunity to welcome students who might not have much exposure to Africana studies and to talk about their concerns and anxieties and to create a classroom where everyone can be part of the conversation."

Williams knows something about taking risks. Active in the theatre since the 1970s, she worked as an actor, director and playwright before pursuing her doctorate in her 50s.

Now a drama theorist with a focus on critical black studies, she turned to academia "because I was in an industry that wasn't addressing the questions I was asking. The whole academic thing is a second chapter for me, so I have the benefit of being a newbie and an oldie."

Having come of age before smartphones and Wi-Fi, Williams describes herself as an "immigrant to technology" who enjoys learning from her tech-savvy students. But she also sees technology as a threat to reflective thinking. "Students are very facile at accessing a lot of information," she notes. "I challenge them to take different pieces of information and concertize them."

"Challenge" is a theme that resonates with Williams, who at age 8 marched on Washington, D.C., with Martin Luther King Jr. A former resident director with ONYX, a theatre that produces works by and for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals of color, she also set a Broadway precedent by hiring two deaf American Sign Language interpreters for a production of Emily Mann's Having Our Say.

"Now I'm compelled by learning," she says. "I have the opportunity to crack open the idea of performance at every level and to think beyond it."

Posted Oct. 6, 2017