Unlike the booming talent show next door, the auditorium for Boardwalk Empire actor Michael Kenneth Williams’ talk Wednesday night at Morgan State University was only half full, with just a smattering of Morgan and Towson University students.
During the nearly two-hour talk, the actor covered his troubled past, his ongoing struggle with addiction, his work on The Wire, and ended by answering questions that dealt with issues of race and the portrayal and stereotypes of black men in the media today.
The painful account of his troubled adolescence and ongoing addiction ran the gamut, from the heartbreaking to the absurd. We learned, for example, that Williams got started dancing and acting because of Janet Jackson’s booty in Rhythm Nation and that, only the day before, both his dog and his aunt had suddenly died.
“Whoop de woo!” That favorite phrase, peppering his rapid-fire delivery, gave the talk a decidedly frenetic feel. At one point, Williams described his self-medication for depression by repeatedly exclaiming “Paxil! Paxil! Hennessy and Paxil! Weed! That’s how I dealt with it.”
Williams went on to explain how the depression he struggled with played a large part in his ability to inhabit the character of Omar with such intensity. “I immediately embraced everything about the character Omar. I was in so much pain. I just needed something I could release this pain on. To help me exorcise it. This character was that for me.”
Addiction was a continuing thread throughout much of Williams’ talk. He discussed how, between drugs and poor decisions, he quickly blew through most of the money he made on the early seasons of “The Wire,” and the embarrassment he currently feels in having to rely on somebody else to manage his money.
When talking about his current sobriety there was considerable confusion, with Williams claiming at varying points to be “nine years,” “nine months,” and “nine days” sober. In the face of his own struggle, Williams repeatedly warned the audience of mostly young black men and women about the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, saying: “I am here to tell y’all, yo, wrap your minds around this thing called education, because it’s opportunity.”
Most surprising to this writer, though, was the audience’s reaction to Williams’ role as Omar. Most of the questions posed had to do with the problems they felt were inherent in his portrayal of a violent gangster. Williams responded by saying that he thought that Omar was, if anything, the antithesis of a stereotypical gangster saying, “his moral code, he didn’t cross that for nobody… And that’s a rarity. And he was completely honest with his sexuality. With how he got down. If he loved you, he loved you. his robbing crew or his lover. And that’s a rarity. People are rarely that honest about who they are…And that’s why I think he’s anything but a stereotype.”
Williams ended by saying, “I guess I am a work in progress.”