Reel Life

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Theresa Williams wears different hats as director of DiSilvestro Playground — from social-services worker to mentor — and this summer she has a new one: film director.

Williams is leading 43 youths in her Kids Culture camp-in video project. The participants’ goal is to shoot footage of what they like about their community.

The project encourages children to participate in the arts, the director says.

"I feel that when they have stuff to do, creative stuff, they love it. Who knows, they could be one of our future principal dancers, or a great sculptor, or a new independent filmmaker."

The finished projects will be presented as three- to five-minute shorts during Scribe Video Center’s traveling program called "Street Movies," which stops at DiSilvestro Playground, 15th and Morris streets, on Aug. 16.

But children at the playground have more in common with Williams than making videos. Williams, 48, the director since last year, is one of them. She is part of the Asian community and the black community — an ethnic background similar to the demographics with which she works.

She believes it is no mistake that she ended up becoming director of DiSilvestro, even though she is half Japanese — an ethnicity few, if any, of the Asians in the community share with her.


Williams brings a storied past to her diverse community. Her father, Jesse Williams, met her mother, Hiroko Mitsuhashi, while he was in the Army stationed in Japan several years after World War II.

"I always say that I was made in Japan and born in the U.S.A.," Williams jokes.

Jesse, a military police officer from Greenville, N.C., and Hiroko, from Yokohana, Japan, would never have met, much less had a child together, if the Army or Hiroko’s parents had anything to do with it. Williams says her father had told her soldiers were ordered to have no interaction with the Japanese women.

Conversely, Williams says, many of the Japanese people resented the presence of American soldiers in their country, and particularly looked down upon the black soldiers. That did not stop Jesse and Hiroko from having a relationship, but it changed their lives when Hiroko became pregnant with Theresa.

Jesse did what would be perceived as the honorable thing in this country — particularly during that time — and married Hiroko in a ceremony in Japan.

"My father married my mother so that I could have a future," Williams explains, but Hiroko’s parents did not share the same perspective of the situation. "My mother was disowned by her parents. I have never met my grandparents because my mother chose to marry an African-American soldier."

Not long after their marriage, Jesse was transferred stateside and Hiroko gave birth to Theresa in North Carolina.

"I am proud to be who I am," Williams says. "To this day I just think of myself as a woman, and not as a black woman or an Asian-American woman, just a woman."

Williams spent her childhood in West and Southwest Philadelphia, at 55th and Beaumont. She graduated from Shaw Middle School and Bartram High.

"That is when I really found out about racial tensions and stuff like that," she says. "I was every [name] in the book growing up."

After high school she attended Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts, now the University of the Arts, earning a degree in theater with a minor in dance.

By the time Williams was 34, she had two children — Lisa, now 28, and Geno, now 30 — and was divorced. She says she desperately needed new physical and mental challenges, as well as money. So she enlisted in the Navy. "I really needed my time off," she recalls.

She was stationed in Orlando, Fla., and Norfolk, Va., for two-and-a-half years until she came home and regained custody of her children.

Her next career was analyzing drugs seized by cops in the criminalistics lab of the Philadelphia Police Department.

"That was not what I wanted to do," Williams says. "I was always dancing, singing and acting."


So she made another bold decision and applied for a grant awarded by the Philadelphia Dance Alliance for its series titled, "Performance in an Intimate Space."

Upon winning the grant, Williams says she immediately took a one-month leave from the police and retreated to the beaches of Aruba, where she wrote a piece called River of Life about ancient Egyptian civilization that combined dance and video.

Williams now considers herself a multimedia specialist. All of her performance art includes various combinations of video, dance, drama, spoken word, music and images.

"I like doing edgy, cutting-edge stuff," she says, "things that everyone else is not doing."

That made her a perfect fit for the International Fringe Festival stages here and in New York last year. The event is touted as a traveling festival of new art of all media.

In 1997, Williams hooked up with a group in the Asian Arts Initiative and by 2000, became a member of a four-person performance group affiliated with an organization called Asians Misbehavin’. The group was a blend of comedy, spoken word and performance art, all written and acted out on stage by Asian Americans.

"We talk about being Asian, or part Asian, in America," Williams says. "Some people think it’s easy."

She is performing with the group at festivals again this year, but only on a part-time basis. Since leaving the police, Williams’ greatest passion has been her work for the city’s Recreation Department. It has been her creative outlet, she says.

Through the department’s performing-arts program, she has written 10 multimedia bills and performed them at schools throughout Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware.

"The best thing for me is being able to express myself, however; bringing things to life that you have in here," Williams says, tapping her head. "And then to be able to see it, it’s healing."