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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Awakening their perceptions of art and one another

At least two love tales were being played out in the same room when Opera Memphis performed a performance of “Porgy and Bess” at the city’s Orpheum Theater in the autumn of 2006. In one, the focus was on the titular opera characters created by Gershwin; in the other, it was on two high-school students in the audience.

Teenagers Talibah Safiya and Bertram Williams Jr. were very different from one another. Ms. Safiya, 30, a self-described “theatre geek,” used to stroll around her childhood home singing songs from shows like “A Chorus Line,” “Hairspray,” “Chicago,” and “Dreamgirls.” She is now a mother of two.

After failing at a traditional high school, Mr. Williams switched to Overton High School, a creative and performing arts high school in Memphis, where he was two years ahead of Ms. Safiya in class.

“I was dealing with truancy concerns on a regular basis,” Mr. Williams said, adding that he had not yet developed an interest in artistic activities when he first came at Overton Academy. His main concerns were keeping up with the newest Jordans, attending parties and attempting to make friends with as many young females as he could, according to him.

Mr. Williams, according to Ms. Safiya, was the first person she spotted in the corridors. Mr. Williams and Ms. Safiya were subsequently introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and Ms. Safiya claims that she then began telling other students about her feelings for Mr. Williams.

Some couples, when recalling an early experience of seeing a film or a play together, might be expected to say something about how they were unable to concentrate on the stage or the screen because they were so engrossed in their developing relationship. Ms. Safiya and Mr. Williams, on the other hand.

For them, the most memorable part of the “Porgy and Bess” experience was not just sitting side by side in tight theatre seats, but also being impacted — and sense each other being moved — by the performance they were seeing on the stage together.

From then, the two formed a connection that oscillated between friendship and passion in a manner that was maybe typical of adolescent relationships. Mr. Williams had a girlfriend at another school during this time period, and he and Ms. Safiya never had a formal relationship at this time. They both agreed, however, that they were more than just buddies.

“We spent a lot of time chatting on the phone and hanging out together in theatre class, and we often skipped lunch to spend time together,” Ms. Safiya said. “We were very close.”

“We were profoundly engaged in one other’s brains back then,” Mr. Williams said about their connection at the time. When we think of younger relationships, we tend to think of them as superficial, but I recall being instantly struck by how unique she was in her thinking as well as in her manner and presence.”

The two of them first worked together while they were still in high school, in a show at the Hattiloo Theater, which had just debuted and has since grown to become a significant repertory theatre in Memphis. Ms. Safiya recalled getting into difficulty during this time period because she would enter the stage from the wrong side, having crossed backstage to spend time with Mr. Williams. “I remember getting into problems during this era,” she said.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Williams went on to study economics at the University of Memphis, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. Despite the fact that their relationship was platonic, he and Ms. Safiya maintained contact. When they were younger, they performed together in a local summer theatre programme called Echoes of Truth. One of their performances was a play in which their characters were dating.

In 2009, she graduated from high school and relocated to Washington, where she attended Howard University to pursue a degree in theatrical instruction. They remained friends, though, and continued to communicate with one another.

When Ms. Safiya began producing R&B music on Bandcamp and YouTube in 2013, Mr. Williams once again became more than simply a buddy; he also became a fan who actively sought out her music. Sometimes he would even request Ms. Safiya to come sing at the Dizzy Bird while she was in town visiting relatives.

Ms. Safiya recalls that it was on this trip to Memphis that she thought she was ready to embark on a more official relationship with Mr. Williams. He, on the other hand, need more time. She returned to New York, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that her heart belonged in Memphis with Mr. Williams.

When she returned home, he picked her up at the airport and, while driving, they chatted about their shared desire to develop a long-lasting relationship. They made arrangements to go on a date, which would be their first real date since they met one other.

Mr. Williams recently said that he has seen a change in Ms. Safiya’s behaviour. When she’s onstage, she’s “a warrior queen” or “a drunken saloon owner cursing at the customers,” he says, but her offstage image is characterised by “tenderness, awareness, and sensitivity.” However, he claims that the distinction has been more blurred in the previous six months or so.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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