Vanessa Williams talks to PEOPLE about what she hopes will be "the 'We Are The World' of theater in this moment"

By Glenn Garner
March 26, 2021 08:01 AM
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Vanessa Williams

Vanessa Williams was set to take London's West End stage in City of Angels in 2020 before the pandemic called curtains on live performances across the world.

The Tony-nominated actress, 58, recently returned to the stage in what she hopes will be "the 'We Are The World' of theater in this moment," joining her fellow founding members of Black Theatre United (BTU) for the music video of their single "Stand for Change," produced by HunterPark Productions.

"I just wanted this to be our legacy and I just didn't want to do it alone," she tells PEOPLE. "I wanted everyone to get together and unite. So we got a chance to actually film together and it was the first time we'd been together as a group since we started."

Williams gushes, "It was full of warm hugs, singing together, tears and laughter the day that we got a chance to perform together at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which was glorious."

It was a group effort in every sense, reuniting members for the video with COVID precautions in place, after having recorded their parts of the song from home, and getting the theater to reopen for the shoot.

The song was also made possible by songwriters and NYU professors Phil Galdston and Dave Schroeder, with whom Williams worked as a scholar-in-residence, as well as the NYU orchestra and Musicians United for Social Equity (MUSE), another new organization started by Black members from the music and orchestra side of Broadway.

"It really took a concerted effort of everyone doing their part and then not giving up and working," Williams says of the project, which took six months to see to fruition. "Every time a door was shut, we found a way to open it."

Black Theatre United Stand For Change
Credit: Black Theatre United
Vanessa Williams, Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald and Vanessa Williams
| Credit: Steven A Henry/WireImage

Released through the Republic Records Action Committee, the track serves as BTU's theme song, with 100% of the net proceeds going toward supporting the organization's ongoing social justice efforts.

The song and video also features BTU members and Broadway veterans Billy Porter, Audra McDonald, Darius de Haas, Norm Lewis, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lillias White, Allyson Tucker, Michael McElroy, NaTasha Yvette Williams, LaChanze, Wendell Pierce, and Capathia Jenkins.

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They founded the nonprofit last year in response to the national unrest over the racial injustice surrounding the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Their mission is to "influence widespread reform and combat systemic racism within the theater industry and across the US."

"I think this is the time of change. I really think that since the pandemic, everyone had a chance to kind of reset and listen and learn," Williams says on the group's work within the industry. "Everyone has had a chance to listen and to feel. And I think everyone is making the changes. I've seen it across the board."

Williams says her "arm is still sore" from getting her first dose of the COVID vaccine the day before speaking with PEOPLE, but she's excited to return to some semblance of normalcy, which she hopes will include a return to the stage.

Global Gift Foundation gala in Paris, France - 25 Apr 2018
Credit: IAN LANGSDON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

"I would love to get back to particularly the West End, because London was always a dream of mine to perform on the West End, and it seemed like I was finally getting my opportunity," she says. "That's my first thing, to perform back again in London on the West End."

The Ugly Betty star also offered a guess of what her iconic editrix character Wilhelmina Slater would be up to during the pandemic, "Oh, darling, she'd be in her penthouse, which is enormous."

MICHAEL URIE
Credit: Andrew Eccles/ABC/Getty

"Of course she would probably have Mark quarantining with her because of the COVID precautions," she says of her character's assistant (played by Michael Urie). "I think they would be inseparable. They would be ordering from every delicious restaurant. And she probably would have gained a good 20 pounds just because the fine dining and the cocktails would have just packed on the pounds."