Troubled parents My parents were still together around the time I was born, in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1987. But by the time I was five or six I was living with my grandparents. My mum was here and there but my dad had got into trouble and ended up in prison.
He remained oddly present in my life, whether it was through a phone call or when we would go and visit. I have three half-sisters and two half-brothers on my dad’s side and I don’t know how he pulled it off – it’s an awful lot of commitment to six people when there’s only a certain amount of time you can be on the phone.
Tiger grandma My mum didn’t feature much early on. Then one day in 1997, I came home from school and she was back. She had been in rehab. Once she got herself together and found her own place I moved in. That was great – she was the getaway from the stress that was my grandma, who was always giving me tiger-mum vibes.
With my mum we could stay up, go out, we got a cat … but then my grades started slipping and she had to become a mum. I had to adjust to the fact that she was my mum. We had to establish that relationship again.
Drug money I went to private school. It was far removed from home life. I lived in the slums of Baltimore, in the northeast where there’s a street called North Avenue, which is the drug capital. Living there, with that poverty, and then going to private school – it was two different worlds. The way it was told to me, my grandma and grandad worked hard to send me to private school. But one day, when I was in high school, it suddenly came to me that, wait – my dad sells drugs.
My dad’s uncle was “Little Melvin” Williams (a heroin dealer who provided inspiration for and acted in the HBO series The Wire). I don’t know much about that relationship and clearly my dad tried to keep us away from that, but one day it all hit me and I started to question that story. However, when it comes to that side of my dad’s life, it’s hard to get an answer – he’s trying to protect us.
Rich kids, poor kids I went to an all-black, all-boys middle school, and then to a Catholic Jesuit high school that was also an all-boys school but this time predominantly white. Both were funded by scholarships. In high school, 10 per cent were minorities and 15 per cent were on some kind of financial support while the rest were very wealthy kids.
At the end of school, we were told to think about our futures and we were given letters. I got one from my dad in which he said, “I hear you are doing well. I worked so hard and I made huge mistakes but I would love to know that at least one thing I got right was making sure you had a shot.” I thought, “Oh god, I have to make something of myself!”
Beating a path I was going to go into wrestling but I injured my knee and so, for my extracurricular, I got involved in a play and ended up going to the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. I was good at it. Listening to rap and R&B and soul music, the rhythms echoed those of Shakespeare, so I found it easy.
I had thought I wanted to teach but a teacher sat me down and suggested I think about acting. So I went and auditioned for some schools, and I got into a lot of them. I ended up choosing the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. However, I stuck to the idea of teaching. My goal was to come out and teach, to take all these acting techniques and put them into art integration, to create curriculums. I worked with the Philadelphia Young Playwrights in my last year and two things happened – I got a role in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Walnut Street Theatre, in Philadelphia, and a job as a teaching assistant to a teaching artist.
Acting up After I graduated, I was offered a post as a teaching artist for the Philadelphia Young Playwrights. But I found that, because I had just come out of college, I wasn’t able to get my curriculums off the ground. I didn’t have the experience to bring to the table.
Some of the kids I was teaching said to me, “Mr D, we’ve seen you rap, we’ve seen you sing, we’ve seen you act, why don’t you go out and do that?” There was a part of me that wanted to know what it was like to perform at that level. Plus I wanted to be able to come back and bring something to the table. So I went out, and I performed at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre and did other projects and, when I came back, it was easier. I knew that doing more would make it even more so, so I decided to go to Los Angeles.
Lion dancing Before I went to LA, I did some data mining. I interviewed all these actors who had gone to LA and I worked out how to play it. I had a callback in my first week. I started getting commercials. It was a game. It was about getting my name out there and connecting with people. The ball was rolling and I was on a high. And that was when Hong Kong Disneyland came along. It was 2014 and they were holding auditions for Festival of the Lion King.
I got a callback and was convinced they were going to call me in for (baby lion) Simba, but it turned out it was to read for Scar (Simba’s evil uncle). I thought, “I’m old!” But I got the offer. At the time, I was the shortest and the youngest Scar. They took a chance on me. At the end of the first six-month contract they were interested in bringing me back.
Running away I did that second contract but in mid-2015, on advice not to get too comfortable, I went back to LA. I worked on a couple of films, some small television projects and I did theatre. I did (hit musical) Grey Gardens with (American actress) Rachel York, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with (actress) Dawnn Lewis.
I had a lot of projects coming and a lot of attention, but I was afraid of that. Which explained why when things got big I ran away. It was a case of, if I succeed, how am I going to keep that ball in the air? I didn’t come to Hong Kong the first time because I was excited about Hong Kong; I fell in love with Hong Kong once I was here. My comfort is the struggle not the success.
Home grounded In 2017, I came back to Hong Kong to play Scar again. After two more contracts I’m going back to LA, but I’m returning more grounded. I’m still going to perform – I have to be part of the culture for the sake of my teaching goals – but I’ve figured out the bridge for connecting education, and I’m coming back to that with international credits, with theatre credits, with show credits. That’s what I’m bringing to the table.
Davon Williams spoke at a recent TEDxWanChai event before his return to the United States.