Delray Beach Teacher Who Wins NSAL Competition Had Endured Gun Threat
When A’Keyah Dasia Williams took the stage at the recent National Society of Arts and Letters (NSAL) of Florida drama competition, her outstanding performance of three different monologues impressed the esteemed panel of judges.
In a field of nearly 20 competitors, her authenticity and power lit up the theatre, leading her to a first-place win and a trip to the national contest to compete for $15,000.
But what the judges didn’t know was that this high school drama instructor entered the competition hoping to reclaim her power that was horribly shaken after a terrifying, life-threatening incident in her classroom.
Williams spent the past four years working as a public high school teacher within the Palm Beach County School District and was overjoyed when she landed her dream job as the first Black female theatre program director at Atlantic Community High School.
“I hoped to ignite a passion and love for the theatre in my students the way David and Saundra Hyland did when I was in the 5th grade,” said Williams, a Boynton Beach resident. “With a community of mentors supporting my mission, I began to see a generation of truth seekers and storytellers rising up.”
Her journey came to an abrupt pause in January 2023 when a student threatened to shoot her and her entire class. The imminent threat of peril and no clear-cut protections in place sent her into a rapidly aggressive episode of PTSD, where she was then put on a 24-hour involuntary psychiatric hold. Being face-to-face with her greatest fear, she knew her life had forever been changed.
During her days of recovery, Williams decided to try her hand at performing again. Scrolling on Facebook, she learned about the NSAL Competition, and hoped entering might restore a sense of self.
“What NSAL has done for me goes beyond money, validation or community,” she said. “This organization gave me the opportunity to find myself through the pain and the shame. To remember a version of myself that felt utterly and completely free. Free to dream, to leap, and to achieve.”
During the competition, the Dreyfoos School of the Arts and Fordham University graduate performed as Rose from August Wilson’s Fences, Electra from Sophocles’ Electra and Norca from Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street. Judges at the event held at Lynn University included Gail S. Garrisan, Keith Garsson, Barbara Bradshaw and Karen Stephens.
“Watching A’Keyah’s performance was truly riveting,” said Marcie Gorman, event co-chair and artistic director of MNM Theatre Company. “In a field of incredible competitors, she really made an impression, and we believe she will definitely be a force at nationals.”
This NSAL of Florida event provides cash awards of $2,000 for first place, and $1,500 for second prize which was awarded to Lynn University student Scott Leavitt and $1,000 for third prize which was awarded to FAU student Caroline Slagle. The first prize winner also receives an all-expense paid trip to nationals from May 18-20 in Lexington, Ky., to compete against other state winners for $15,000 in cash prizes.
Event co-chair, producer/director Shari Upbin, who will be training Williams for nationals, said of the actress, “She is a dynamic performer and an inspiration. We are delighted she will be representing our chapter at nationals, and we are honored that this competition played a role in her steps towards emotional recovery.”
A’Keyah Williams has also starred as Mya in the upcoming feature film Me Little Me, which received its world premiere at SXSW in 2022, won Best Narrative Feature at Urbanworld Film Festival 2022, and has premiered at various other film festivals across the US, most recently, the Miami Film Festival in March 2023.
She said it is her personal mission to spend the remainder of her career creating art and telling stories that connect to the universal human experience. To lend space to those who have felt unprotected, forgotten, and alone. To uplift communities so they may become their own heroes instead of looking externally.
NSAL aims to discover talented young people at the beginning of their careers, provides scholarships and competitions in art, dance, drama, literature, music and musical theatre and works to advance their careers and creative opportunities.
Excelling at the chapter level allows competitors to progress to national competitions and many stars have been discovered. Among these are Shirley MacLaine, actress/dancer/writer; Jessye Norman, opera singer; Megan Hilty, Broadway and television star; Awadagin Pratt, pianist; Jonathan Majors, actor; Amanda McKerrow, prima ballerina and opera star Nadine Sierra who was discovered through the Florida Chapter.
For more information about NSAL scholarships, competitions and how to become a supporter, visit www.NSALFlorida.org