Finding Her Voice

It is almost axiomatic that the creative class in Northeast Florida tends to keep itself busy across a wide variety of pursuits, and the career of Nikesha Elise Williams is a perfect example. Williams, 33, has made her name in several fields since moving here almost a decade ago, most notably as a producer, reporter and occasional pundit in local media. Her truest gift, however, is for the spoken word, a skill she will be putting on display at Babs’ Lab this weekend.

Lessons We Were Never Taught is a one-woman show based on her new book, which was released this week. (You can buy it online now or get signed physical copies at the event.) It’s Williams’ first book of poetry, but it’s the fifth book she’s published overall. Each of its 20 poems offers a glimpse into the soul of a particular person dealing with specific issues within the culture. Six of these pieces will be featured in the show.

“It was an idea that started with some friends of mine,” Williams told Folio Weekly, “just all the things you go through when you become an adult, things you wish someone had told you.” The focus is placed on the stories of black women and their unique perspectives on life in these highly complex times. “When I write poems, they always come out as spoken-word, because that’s the style that I’m most accustomed to,” she added. “My poems are really very long, generally, because the author in me is trying to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, so they’re not very abstract.”

She speaks with power and clarity in all settings, whether it’s on stage, on the mic or in a casual meeting like this one, held outside Brew in Five Points. “It’s an entire concept,” she said of the work. “I wanted to talk about political issues; I wanted to talk about social issues; I wanted to talk about love and relationships; I wanted to talk about what it means to have joy, and to have healing, and to kind of take you through the journey of life, through my eyes, as a black woman.”

Born in August 1986, Williams spent her formative years in Chicago before attending college in Tallahassee. She graduated from Florida State University with a double major in mass media studies and creative writing. Then she moved to Jacksonville, where she has worked as a producer for Action News and First Coast News. She now works full-time as a writer, remaining active as a performer throughout. She has done a TEDxFSCJ talk as well as spoken-word sets at Yellow House and The Ritz.

This weekend’s run is Williams’ first time working with Babs’ Lab’s eponymous proprietor, Barbara Colaciello, who has become a sort of fairy godmother to the current wave of spoken-word performers. “She’s great,” Williams said. “She’s very free, and she doesn’t have any hang-ups about getting into character and trying new things.”

The feeling is mutual. “Nikesha means business,” Colaciello said. “She not only puts her heart in what she writes, she invests and ingests every word that she delivers.” Having worked together through many days of rehearsal, leading into the performances, the two have gotten to know each other, both personally and professionally. “I can’t say enough of how impressed I am with her voracious appetite for processing the six characters she has drawn,” Colaciello said.

“Working with her has really helped me free myself,” Williams explained. “Presenting this work here, and being able to trust her and trust her process, then seeing something great come out of it, has been very rewarding.”

Taken together, the pieces collected in Lessons We Were Taught make for one of the most compelling collections issued in recent years, and to see this work recapitulated on stage will be a special treat for lovers of the form. It is not to be missed.