Jesse Williams spends his days saving lives and breaking hearts as the handsome Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” but not too long ago, his days were spent convincing students that history matters.It’s history that really holds the heart of this self-described “geek.” As a child, he loved visiting the homes in Colonial Williamsburg, imagining what it was like to live in the 18th century. Next month, he’ll get his chance to bring the period to life when he performs as Colonial Williamsburg’s second Guest Artist.
The Guest Artist program, established this year, invites theater, television and film actors to perform alongside CW interpreters in the Historic Area. Williams is the second in the series, which was introduced with actress Mamie Gummer. He will perform two shows on the Governor’s Palace grounds at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sept. 25.
Williams described himself as “chomping at the bit” to start preparing for his outdoor theater piece during a phone interview Wednesday. He has fond memories of visits to Colonial Williamsburg as a child. “I really was fascinated with how people used to live and what they did without,” he said. “I always found it fascinating sitting on that dirt or straw floor and trying to picture what it felt like … the smell of it.”
Williams’ love of history led to his first career, as a teacher of American studies, African studies and English at a public high school in Philadelphia. A Temple University graduate, Williams holds bachelor’s degrees in African-American studies and film and media arts. He’s a relative newcomer to acting; one of his first roles was portraying the love interest for actress Alexis Bledel in the 2008 film, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.” Since then, he’s appeared alongside Richard Gere and Don Cheadle in “Brooklyn’s Finest” and is now a series regular on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
He first heard about the Guest Artist opportunity a month ago and said he was immediately interested in seeing how Colonial Williamsburg has found new ways to educate and entertain. “This was an ideal match,” he said. “As a teacher, history was always my favorite subject to teach, especially African and African-American history.”
Williams will portray James, a bold and brash slave working at the Governor’s Palace during the term of John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore and the last royal governor of the colony. In an emotionally charged scene, Williams’ character will join other slaves as they worry about the fates of their children and their efforts to gain freedom as the palace hits the auction block. In all, several dozen slaves and indentured servants were affected in the auction of the property in 1776.
Williams said the script was a pleasant change from the normal scripts that float around Hollywood. “A lot of what we see in TV and film is based on brands and roller coasters and around a suspension of disbelief,” he said. “Rarely as an actor do you get the opportunity to tap into something you were already interested in. It’s a lot different, then, to get a really thoughtful script that is based on something you’ve grown up loving.”
For more information about Williams’ Guest Artist performance or to reserve tickets, click here.