Roger- What was it like growing up in Chicago Illinois and tell me about your childhood?
Cynda Williams- Going up in the Southside of Chicago in the 70s was very different than it is now. “White flight” began when we moved into our neighborhood. When we first moved into our red brick mansion (to us) we had many white neighbors. Within a year the hood was chocolate. My brothers and I stood out because we were the product of a bi-racial couple. My Daddy was a big, black and handsome Chicago Cop and my mom was a petite white beauty that worked full time in several different places as a chemist. The entire neighborhood had hard working low-middle class black families. The families in our neighborhood were close. We protected each other. We played with each other. My family’s home was the neighborhood playground.
I was very shy in spite of the celebratory feel around me. I had a some very horrific experiences as a young child (to find out more specifics you can read my book Pink Pantie Confessions published by 220 Publishing in 2016 available wherever books are sold online). I was extremely timid in all ways but one. I loved to sing. When I sang all the world went away. I did not care who was looking. I had watched my uncle, James Wesley Williams (King James) sing professionally as far back as I could remember and I wanted to do that. I was fortunate in that he lived with us at one point and worked with me. He taught me so much. I continued my education in public schools and church. I eventually added acting to my comfort zone. Singing, acting, reading, and writing were my world. I never had a desire to do anything else.
Roger- How did you get your start within the entertainment industry?
Cynda Williams- When I moved to Muncie, Indiana I went to Northside High School. My focus remained on the performing arts. I was extremely fortunate to have phenomenal teachers help me grow in spite of racial tensions within the environment. These teachers made sure I had as many opportunities as the other 99% white students much to the dismay of some parents and their children.
Cynda Williams- My church, Trinity Methodist Church lead by my grandparents offered many favorable programs to the youth to advance in the arts. My uncle, James was the leader of all of the programs. I was his assistant. When I finally matriculated at Ball State University as a Theater Major (all the while receiving Classical vocal training) there was no turning back. By my junior year I excelled in school, community, and professional productions.
Cynda Williams -Many casting directors in the midwestern region suggested I’d do even better in film on the east or west coasts. At the time in that area, casting had no idea how to place me. I didn’t look like a stereotypical black and I didn’t speak Spanish which they all assumed I was. I definitely wouldn’t be cast in white roles! So I decided to move to NYC. My primary training was musical theater so I set my sights on Broadway. That was never to be. As I was working on my first off-off Broadway show (Two By Two) and as a book-keeper/hostess for several restaurants multiple people suggested I audition for Spike Lee’s new film, A Love Supreme aka Mo’Better Blues. I did. After a long audition process I landed the role. That blessed shot opened the door for me to do my favorite things: act and sing.
Roger- How did you land your role in MO BETTER BLUES, Introduction to Dorothy Dandridge, and The Wedding?
Cynda Willams- When I heard of Love Supreme aka Mo’Better Blues I took myself to the casting offices of Robbie Reed that were not too far from my day job. My employers knew of my dreams so they let me off for the day (or until I could return). I showed up when the offices were supposed to open: 8:30 A.M. No one was in there. The space was shared by other casting directors. I had my book with me (I always carried a book where ever I went, and still do) sat down to read and waited...patiently. What else did I have to do? The other casting professionals were so impressed with my composure they expressed to Robbi when she arrived that she should give me a chance to read, simply because of my attitude. That was the beginning of about six auditions for the next month and a half. I truly believe that I would have never gotten my shot if I hadn’t had my midwestern (and Williams) equanimity.
Halle Berry and I came up around the same time in similar ways. She was also from the pageant world (I was the first black Miss Ball State and went on to the Miss Illinois pageant - another story in my upcoming second book Pink Pantie Confessions II). She was also a midwesterner. We both had bi-racial parents. Many people compared us in the early 90s so it was no surprise when I got a call to audition for Oprah Winfry’s mini-series, The Wedding that Halle was starring in. It was a perfect fit. I had read the wonderful book by Dorothy West and was very excited to meet everyone involved. I read for a couple of people and immediately landed the role. Halle produced Introducing Dorothy Dandridge so she offered me the role of her sister Vivian. She knew I could sing and act. She knew we got along and looked liked sisters so she didn’t waste time with an audition. I truly enjoyed working with her on that amazing project.
Roger- What was it like working with Bokeem Woodbine in the film Caught up?
Cynda Williams -Bokeem Woodbine was young and new to moviemaking back when we did Caught Up. He was so earnest and sweet. Working with him was a precious experience. He had no megalithic ego like some I’d worked with previously. I loved how he prepared for each exciting scene. He’d drop down to the ground and pump out a hundred pushups. In his trailer he’d play Rock&Roll on his electric guitar. He was nothing like I expected; nothing like the roles he had played. The love scenes took patience and care because he had never done them before. We worked them out with concise choreography. Caught Up was one of my best and most memorable experiences
Roger- What was it like working with Hallie Berry sister in the TV series THE Wedding?
Cynda Williams - Halle and I got along just like sisters. I miss her. I’m happy she has gone on to do so many important productions. She deserves the best..
ROGER- Explain how you made you transition into the music industry and why music means so much to you?
Cynda Williams- I sang first. It has always been my first love. I thrive on touching people with lyrics in ways they’ve never been touched before. I’d have a pure tone but I’d say my gift is truly interpretation and delivery. Mo’ Better Blues was a way for me to be introduced as a singer and actress. The issue was, you saw the character, Jazz singer Clarke, singing; not Cynda. I was playing a role. The song was not really showcasing me, it was bringing the story of Bleek’s difficult journey to a crescendo. Acting in a film and playing the role of a singer is very different than singing live as yourself.
Cynda Williams- I have been a singer my entire life. Making movies became my bread and butter but singing has always been my passion. Now that I am only acting when a project is exciting to me, I can sing more. I perform with multiple bands on the east coast and midwest. These days I am singing most with Robert Mwamba and his various bands out of New York City and Roosevelt Hatter Purifoy in Chicago. I am relishing performing Jazz, Neo Soul and Stepper’s music but I am most exhilarated about the original music we are creating. Roosevelt and I are finishing up the songs for my musical television series, Pink Pantie Confessions (fiction series) that I intend to produce in the next year.
Roger- You recently did a show in NEW YORK CITY. What can people expect to see when you perform live in concert?
Cynda Williams -When I have the blessed chance to sing live I use all the gifts I’ve been given. I “sang”, dance and interpret classics, current and original songs in new ways. It thrills me to hear folk’s laughter and stifling tears. I endeavor to move people to FEEL. The Robert Mwamba Trio are exceptional musicians. They make the music envelop your soul! I am enjoying performing Jazz all over New York and beyond; far beyond.