Hooked on Theater, Focused on Change
Mar 02, 2020 09:36AM
By Houston Wiltsey
She may be 20, but Omaha native Nadia Ra’Shaun Williams has a resume to rival any actor in the metro.
Being a child actor is difficult. Not only do they have to remember dialogue that is years above what they’d be reading in school, they have to do it while convincingly inhabiting a character. They have to hit their marks, take direction, and keep pace with the adults in the room.
That’s why it’s all the more impressive that Nadia Ra’Shaun Williams wasn’t just acting as a child, she was already figuring out how to direct.
“My mother, TammyRa’, is an actress here in Omaha,” the 20-year-old said. “When I was younger I’d sit through her rehearsals, memorizing everyone’s lines and blocking scenes—getting a feel for where people needed to be. I did my first play a couple of years later when I was either eight or nine, and I was hooked.” Fortunately, she already had an in.
“For the first five years of my acting career, I always played my mother’s daughter in every show,” Williams said. It gave her the chance to practice her craft in a comfortable situation alongside her biggest inspiration.
“I loved watching my mom do her thing on stage, but [when] I went to Omaha Burke and joined Emily Mokrycki’s drama club in the ninth grade, something changed,” Williams said. “In my 10th-grade year, we did a collaboration show with Tony Schik and his students at Beveridge Middle School. The show, Show-n-Tell, was about remembering the victims of school shootings. The night we performed it at the Nebraska Thespian Festival was sort of a golden moment for me. It was the night that I learned that theater can change lives, and on the bus ride home I decided that I wanted to be a professional actress.”
She threw herself into getting experience in every way possible. In 2017, she graduated from Burke High School to attend Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. After spending a year in their acting program, Williams returned home due to some personal trauma. She took a year off from school and worked professionally as an actress. She earned her Equity Membership Candidate card for acting before earning roles in Beaufield Berry’s play The Upper Room at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Colorado New Play Summit and Hair at Nebraska Repertory Theatre, as well as finding work at The Union for Contemporary Art, The Rose Theater, and The Broadway Dreams Showcase in New York City.
Casting Williams was an easy decision for Berry. “Nadia is a shining light,” she said. “The moment I saw her onstage, I wanted to book her, work with her and promote her immediately. Behind the scenes, she’s emotionally available, serious, dedicated, professional, and open. Onstage she’s raw and focused.”
Berry said she’s not the only one who feels this way. “She has a lot of support behind her—so many people in Omaha, and nationally, that believe in her and support her and want to be a part of her journey. They’re invested in her success,” she said. “And she’s young—so there’s so much to learn and so many ways to grow.”
Williams eventually returned to school, enrolling in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, where she is currently majoring in theater performance. “I fell in love with my peers [from the university] working on Hair and it convinced me to return to school and finish my degree,” she said. “Everything fell into place at the right time.”
Williams has also been gaining experience outside the classroom by working as a performance intern for Broadway Dreams, a program founded in 2006 by casting executive Annette Tanner that empowers aspiring young artists through performing arts training, with a focus on the acting, voice, and dance disciplines.
“As a performance intern, you are practically working at the Broadway level,” Williams said. “We travel from city to city, a new city every week. On day one you audition for your directors and the very next day you’re in rehearsals for the showcase that happens at the end of the week.”
Besides touring the country singing and dancing, they are learning new music and choreography every day. All this while performing typical intern tasks such as getting coffee, assisting in classes, taking lunch orders.
“It’s a whirlwind experience,” she continued. “Being on tour and doing what I love is great.”
She has also continuously found roles that she feels inspired by, starring in Dragons Love Tacos and The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, both of which were directed by Omahan Denise Chapman.
“Dragons Love Tacos is purely about stimulating a child’s imagination. It is full of pure joy and love and energy,” Williams said. “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin tells the story of the life I have led. Not just me, but every little black girl who has slipped on a ballet shoe.”
Currently, Williams is preparing for her role as Caska in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln presentation of Julius Ceasar. However, her most important role might be coming off the stage.
“I am in the process of founding a Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the Johnny Carson School,” she said. “We saw a need to increase diversity and inclusion all around. Some students have never worked with a theater practitioner, professor, or director of color and that needs to change. We want to provide a safe space for every student that walks through the doors of the Johnny Carson School.”
Williams wants to give everyone in the program a leg up by putting them in the ideal environment to succeed, much like she had when she walked on to the set with her mother all those years ago.
Visit nadiarashaun.com for more information.This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.