Sylvia Williams, who starred as “Big Bertha” Williams in Vernel Bagneris’ musical One Mo’ Time, died on July 17 in New Orleans, reported The Times-Picayune. She was 59, and had been battling cancer.
Bagneris wrote the part of the blustery, belting Bertha for Ms. Williams and the role was a perfect fit. She stayed with the show during its three-year Off-Broadway run, which began in 1979, and then toured with it in London, Germany, Greece, Italy, France, Australia, Sweden and the Bahamas. In London, she met Queen Elizabeth II. "My favorite sight of Kuumba was in London," Bagneris told the Times-Picayune, referring to Ms. Williams by her nickname, "shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth. It was one queen meeting another."
The show brought her other honors, including a portrait by Andy Warhol. Her image also graced the poster for the musical. "Her face became our logo," Bagneris said.
Ms. Williams traded on her success in One Mo’ Time overseas by singing on the European jazz circuit. Like many jazz musicians before her, she settled in Sweden, living there ten years, learning how to speak Swedish and acting in classical plays with the likes of Max Van Sydow, the renowned Ingmar Bergman actor.
Eventually, though, she returned to New Orleans, where she spent most of her life (she was born in New York City). She started her acting career at various local theatres, becoming a member of the Free Southern Theatre in 1968, according to the Times-Picayune. She went from there to the Repertory Theatre, then run by June Havoc. Havoc reportedly gave her the nickname “Kuumba,” a Swahili word for creativity. In 1976, she performed in The Sunshine Boys at La Petit Theatre, making her the first African-American to essay a major role at that theatre.
She would also appear in films, when they happened to shoot in Louisiana. Among her credits are “Live and Let Die,” “Sounder,” “Freedom Road” and “Mandingo.”
Ms. Williams’ death comes at an ironic moment. One Mo’ Time recently wrapped up a praised revival production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, starring and directed by Bagneris. There is talk the show will transfer to Broadway.
There will be a memorial service July 28 at 10 a.m. at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, 2515 Franklin Ave, in New Orleans.