"I was down in the West Indies doing a not-very-good movie called 'Hot Resort,' " noted visiting playwright Samm-Art Williams, "and I said to myself, 'I want to get something out of this besides a job'--because the job wasn't paying that much. So I spent a lot of time getting to know the people of the island. I walked, I jogged around. And people begin to talk to you. Then they'll tell you anything."
The result of Williams' West Indian sojourn is "Eyes of the American," opening Aug. 20 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
The play, which he describes as a blend of "poetry and dialogue," centers on modern-day taxi driver, James Ottley III, a simple man whose life is irrevocably altered by the emotional and political machinations of a now-powerful childhood buddy and a cagey CIA man.
"Everyone's a politician in the West Indies, because politics affects them so," said Williams (whose three-character play "Home" received a 1980 Tony nomination). "I got to know the cab drivers on the island very well. They have all the information, they know everything. And I also met a couple of CIA people. It was weird because they were just like the ones you see on television. Very fit, self-assured, very James Bond: making every effort to conceal who they were, which only made them more obvious."
Williams' resulting work ("If you're in search of a play, you'll never find it; I just let it happen") does rely on specific sociological and political factors in the West Indies, yet he stressed that the human story is far from unique.
"People are so different--and yet so similar--all over the world. Everyone is struggling to get out of whatever situation they're in. You go to a ghetto in Chicago or London and people are striving to get out. It makes no difference what color or religion they are. They're all aspiring to better themselves, all subject to the same greed, passion."
Ironically, much of his dramatic fodder has come about through his travels as an actor.
"I wish I could just write," he sighed. "I could sit in a room all day long and write for the rest of my life. But I can't afford it. So I act or tend bar, depending on which comes first."
And the work is often insecure. "Whenever I leave one (acting) job, I'm always wondering if I'm ever going to work again. Because there are no guarantees. Now if you do television work (as he has, including 1985's Emmy-nominated "Motown Returns to the Apollo"), that's different. But no one is beating down my door in television."
"Everything that's happened for me, I've really had to work for," he said, without bitterness. "I've never won the lottery. I don't even play, because I know I'm not going to get it." After his success with "Home," he noted, "I enjoyed a great couple of years, but it doesn't take long to spend the money if you're not working."
If he ever did strike it rich?
"Oh, I'd love that," he grinned. "I know I would love a Rolls-Royce: a turquoise Corniche. I'd want a jacuzzi and a swimming pool, all of that. But if I don't get it, so what? Life goes on."
As for his commercial detours, "I don't look at them as a sell-out, because they allow you to do those things that you think are creative and productive."
These days, Williams would also relish a chance to just stay home in New York (where he's appeared in several productions by the Negro Ensemble and will act in his own play, "Cork," later this year).
"It used to be fun--when I was younger," said the 40-year-old Williams of his travels. "It's just really gotten to be a pain the last three years--hotels, bags, luggage; waking up and not knowing where I am. . . . "
Yet after a brief stay here, he'll be off again, to La Jolla Playhouse where, beginning Aug. 31, he'll play Agamemnon ("so I'm starting to talk in a deep voice") in Peter Sellars' staging of "Ajax."
For Williams, juggling his dual interests began in his Burgaw, N.C., high school (where his mother was the drama teacher), although "by the time I got to college (Morgan State University in Baltimore), I was leaning more toward the writing."
Self-confidence, he shrugs, has never been a problem: "I think all writers are very vain and egotistical to assume that people (watching) are going to be changed, that the words are going to have some impact."
But in spite of that built-in hubris, "I try to shy away from making statements. I just write what I feel as an individual. Whatever audiences take away, fine."
His own perspective, Williams added, is shaped by the fact that "basically, I like people. I think (as a playwright) you have to find some redeeming feature in mankind, in order to give your characters dimension. If you feel jaded, that all people are bad, I don't think you can write. We're a mixture of a lot of things, good and bad. If an audience goes in and they think you've already made your statement--'This character is bad: That's the direction he's going'--why should they stay and watch it?"
If they stay but don't enjoy?
"You have to know that going in and not be afraid. People are always going to pass judgment on you. But that's OK. Opinions are good. As long as I write from my own truth, as long as I make them think, that's all that's important. So you do have to put yourself out there on a limb. But, hey, if you can't stand the heat. . . . "