“Black Lightning” Star Nafessa Williams on Playing TV’s First Black Lesbian Superhero

Also: The new film "Climax" goes to the dark side of voguing.

Playing TV’s first black lesbian superhero, Nafessa Williams has amassed an army of fans as Anissa Pierce, AKA Thunder, on the CW’s Black Lightning, adapted from the DC comic and currently in its second season. The show centers on high school principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), who’s trying to suppress his superpowers, while his daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) mature and realize they have some capabilities of their own. Anissa/Thunder is strong willed, fiery, and raging with the urge to right wrongs.

Philadelphia-born Williams is similarly possessed. She started as a hair and beauty model, went on to work in the homicide department for the D.A.’s office, and eventually went into acting, fortuitously enough. Most recently, she had a recurring role in Twin Peaks and a major part in Burning Sands, a Netflix movie about fraternities’ hazing rituals, with Alfre Woodard. I just spoke to Williams and found her super-powerful.

First of all, thank you for being an LGBTQ ally.

You’re very welcome.

Your character, Anissa/Thunder, is realizing her super powers. Do you feel that’s a metaphor for empowerment?

I do. It’s a metaphor for finding who you are and walking boldly in your truth. Trying to be an inspiration for those trying to find themselves and being unapologetic about it.

She is the first black lesbian superhero on TV. Do you feel honored to play this role?

I do. It’s such a honor for a generation of women who don’t get to see themselves on camera. We want to see characters who look like us or are going through the same issues we are, so we can relate. I have women saying they appreciate how unapologetic she is and how she walks in her truth. Our duty is to inspire, and I feel like I’m doing it.

So you get great reactions from the lesbian community?

Yes. They’re appreciative that they’re seeing themselves on TV and are able to relate. Especially if we’re talking black lesbian women—they haven’t seen themselves. You normalize the idea of her being a lesbian. On the show, there’s not a big conversation about it—there’s not a big coming out moment. It’s just a part of who she is, and I think that’s what fans are connecting to.

Who are your icons in show business and politics?

I’m really, really inspired by your Beyoncés and J.Los and Oprahs, where the sky is the limit. J.Lo is a singer, actress, and media mogul. I’ve always looked to them for inspiration. And I’m impressed by Diddy’s drive and ambition and longevity. His hustle and his drive—how do you not get inspired by him? Acting-wise, I admire Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. In politics, Maxine Waters is always inspiring, a lot like Anissa/Thunder. She’s very unapologetic when there’s something on her mind and she doesn’t care who’s with it or against it. Cardi B has become a political figure. She’s been speaking out over important issues. I love her using her platform to her millions of followers and being a voice for the people.

As for your own career trajectory, I know you realized early on that law wasn’t for you. But did you get anything positive out of it?

I think I gained a great in-depth idea of the criminal justice system, but I did it for a short period of time. When you’re young, you don’t know what you’re gonna do till you try it. I realized, Okay, this is not for me. I actually got fired for going on an audition. I can’t remember if I got the job, but more important is that it was the start of the rest of my life and being who I am now, and that was very rewarding. Seeing that it’s paid off, I always say it was the first day of the rest of my life.

Spins and Dips

And now for some super powers on the dance floor: Towards the beginning of the film Climax, directed by Gaspar Noe, is one of the most astounding things you’ll ever see—a group voguing number in a dance rehearsal hall, which is flawlessly choreographed and executed, with individual flourishes, group synchronicity, and magical camerawork, the number continually mounting into a feverish brilliance. And then the party descends as the dancers realize the punch has been spiked (shades of an old Michael Alig club kid party) and everyone’s feeling woozy.

For about an hour, we witness the unraveling of the precision we’d witnessed, as the dancers scream, banter, say atrocious things, threaten a pregnant woman, lock a kid in a room, and scream some more. It becomes unbearable, as Noe tries to do his own version of Black Swan meets Pose meets Suspiria, but with a lot more screaming than all of those combined. Why, whenever there’s something about possessed or evil dancers, does lesbianism play such a big part? And can we maybe separate that big number and release it, while flushing the rest?

Oh, What a Night

As for vocal power: I sat there at the Café Carlyle for John Lloyd Young’s show, wondering what I appreciate the most—his rich lower register, his stunning upper register, or his dreamy middle one? Faced with that impossible task, I called a truce and made it a three-way tie. The guy (who won a Tony and other awards for playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys) has an enviable instrument and applied it to a variety of oldies and newies with an ease that resulted in thrilling sounds.

He soared on Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely” and “Say No More,” tugged heartstrings with the Taiwanese film theme “Ming Ri Tien Yo” (“If Tomorrow Comes”) and the pretty bolero “Usted.” And to avoid rioting in the aisles, he ended with a rockin’ medley of Jersey Boys songs “Working My Way Back To You” and “Sherry.” The guy was obviously born too late—he would have been as big as crooner Gene Pitney if he were a grownup in the 1960s—but he’s doing just fine in 2019, even if he correctly pointed out that the press has turned its back on the cabaret scene. (“Thanks for literally keeping us alive and fed,” he told the audience, who support this fare despite a virtual blackout on media coverage. “The New Yorker doesn’t even list this place.”)

As for Jersey Boys insight, Lloyd Young divulged that when the show opened in 2005, they wore H&M jackets and the set backdrops were projections, but when he re-entered the musical five years later, “They were so rich that we had custom made jackets and the sets were LED!” Well deserved. But who cares what he wears? Can’t take my ears off of him.

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily

Let me start at the beginning, as it were. In 1981, Merrily We Roll Along—a chronologically backwards piece about three creative cronies and their fizzling idealism—proved to be a rare Stephen Sondheim flop. Having seen the production, I thought the plot developments weren’t always worth figuring out as the clock went back, and the overall presentation was rather grey and uninspired.

Along comes a new off-Broadway production by Fiasco Theater at Roundabout Theatre Company, retooling the book by George Furth (based on an old Kaufman and Hart play, which Fiasco has now added from), with direction by Noah Brody, and it makes a better case for the show. The Derek McLane-designed set is an elaborate dressing room/treasure chest, filled with statues, books, “Applause” signs, and a sign that says “Alvin Theater” (which is where the first Merrily played, if for only 60 performances).

But even though the cast has been stripped down to six, the stage feels as full as those shelves because of the well-paced staging. Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld) is a composer with high ideals, Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan) is his frustrated wordsmith, and Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian) is a writer who winds up longing for Frank and lots of alcohol. The actors announce each receding year, and scene switches are made, most memorably when Mary loses her fat suit, then effortlessly changes again, all while spitting out vodka and cocktail olives.

Along for the ride (which goes from 1980 to 1955) is Emily Young as Gussie, a narcissistic actress who never changes, including her dress, and who manages to take Frank away from his long suffering wife (Brittany Bradford). The latter gets to sing a bitter and well performed “Not a Day Goes By,” which is reprised—at an earlier time—as a romantic ballad, though Mary chimes in with her own desperate take on it. “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a furious retelling of the songwriting duo’s thankless work process, as Frank becomes more mercenary, is flawlessly done by Narayan. And other songs sound like Sondheim’s echoes of his own Company tunes (“Old Friends” resembles “Side by Side by Side” and “The Blob” is like a lighter “The Ladies Who Lunch”). But the composer’s genius shines in lyrics like, “I’ll get Leontyne Price to sing her/Medley from Meistersinger” as the musical takes on a quirky, neurotic edge that aims to spotlight the dark side of success.

The central role of Frank could be played with more charisma and some of the other actors’ line readings are overly glib, but I felt Merrily was worth the ride this time, as a heady exercise in the pitfalls of thinking the past used to be better—except that it really was. Except for 1981.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.