“I really do believe that we walk in the light of our ancestors. They’ve made a path. We’re just putting our feet in their footsteps.” ~ Oba William King
With a voice like his, Oba William King was born to be a storyteller.
I first met William – he hadn’t been gifted the African title Oba yet – 20 years ago. Barely 21 and a grad film student at Columbia College Chicago, my friend Sonya dragged me out of my Hyde Park cocoon to a happening spot she said I just had to visit.
The spot? Spices Jazz Bar. And the first person I saw when I walked down the stairs? William.
The host for the evening, he was spitting on the mic. Bald, chocolate and rocking a perfectly groomed goatee, his voice – smooth and shiny – sounded like Shakespeare.
I stared at him, intrigued. You see, Fam, at that time, I was a closet poet.
Sure, I had been writing since the age of seven and had been published in everything from my church’s bulletin to Newsweek Magazine, but I knew I had boxes of notebooks and handwritten scribbles so honest and raw that I was too afraid and embarrassed to let anyone see.
I looked at Sonya, who was already smiling. That settled it – Monice Mitchell from the D was now officially a resident of the Chi.
I was home. And William, without knowing it, was captaining my welcoming committee.
WHERE HE NEEDED TO BE
Born in Greensville, SC, William was raised in San Bernadino, California. There, he graduated from Cajon High School before enlisting in the U.S. Army. Four years later, he returned to Cali and stumbled into a local college’s theatre and dance department.
The rest, said William, unfolded like the Great Bard penned it himself.
“Because of the way I talk, the Shakespeare department heard me and boom, I’m in the Western Stage Theatre Conservatory,” he said.
An acclaimed four-year university in Salinas, California, William had to produce a final project to graduate. So as the only African American male in his 1986 class, what did he do?
“Countee Cullen, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – All of these writers were my idols,” he said. “ I incorporated all of them into an one man show and took on their personas. A hat, a rocking chair…I became them.”
Graduate degree in his back pocket, William – the California boy who didn’t own a winter coat – then set his compass for what’s got to be the coldest mid-west metropolis in the Union.
“Upon graduation, I asked myself, ‘Where are you going to go? I looked at Chicago – Black mayor. Breaking down the fourth wall – The Black Box Theatre. Speaking Black voices and being able to tell stories,” he said. “I knew where I needed to be.”