Open your eyes to art and each other
When Opera Memphis staged âPorgy and Bessâ in the city’s Orpheum Theater in autumn 2006, at least two love stories were taking place in the room. One centered on Gershwin’s eponymous opera characters; the other, two high school students in the audience.
Talibah Safiya and Bertram Williams Jr. were different types of teenagers. Growing up, Ms. Safiya, 30, a self-proclaimed “theater nerd”, walked through her parents’ house and sang songs from “A Chorus Line”, “Hairspray”, “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”.
Mr. Williams, 32, was two grade years ahead of Ms. Safiya at Overton High School, a Memphis creative and performing arts school that he moved to after struggling at a conventional school.
“I’ve been truant on a regular basis,” said Williams, who added that when he arrived at Overton, he had no need to develop an interest in creative pursuits. “I was more about keeping up with the latest Jordans, spending time at parties and trying to make friends with as many young women as possible,” he said.
Ms. Safiya said it was the first time she noticed Mr. Williams walking in the hallways. The two were later introduced by a mutual friend, and Ms. Safiya said she then started telling other students that she had a crush on Mr. Williams.
“It was definitely a strategy,” said Ms. Safiya.
That evening at the Orpheum, while on a school trip to the theater, Mr. Williams asked Ms. Safiya to sit next to him.
Some couples remembering an early experience of seeing a movie or play together might be expected to say something about being unable to focus on the stage or screen, so much were they in caught in their burgeoning romance. Not Ms. Safiya and Mr. Williams.
For them, what was special about the âPorgy and Bessâ experience was not only to sit next to each other in narrow theater seats, but also to be moved by the performance they saw and to feel that they were moving each other.
“There is a song in ‘Porgy and Bess’ where she sings, ‘I love you Porgy, don’t let him take me with you,'” Ms. Safiya said. She said the song, making her think about “the importance of feeling protected as a woman,” and wondered if Mr. Williams was “a protector.”
“This piece,” she said, “gave us both a direction as to how we were going to spend the rest of our lives.”
Mr. Williams said that “there was some kind of triangulation” when they saw the performance.
From then on, the two developed a relationship that oscillated between friendship and romance, perhaps in a typically youthful way. Mr. Williams had a friend at another school; he and Ms. Safiya never formally met during this time. But they both agreed that they were more than just friends. (The two shared a first kiss backstage in their high school theater during a rehearsal for an adaptation of “Lilies of the Field,” starring Mr. Williams.)
“We spent a lot of time talking on the phone and hanging out in drama classes and skipping lunch to hang out,” Ms. Safiya said.
Commenting on their relationship then, Mr. Williams added, âWe were very interested in each other’s thoughts. We think younger relationships are a bit superficial, but I remember being immediately impressed with how original she was in thought, fashion and existence. “
In early 2007, while still in high school, they appeared together in a production at the Hattiloo Theater, which recently opened and has since grown into a major repertory house in Memphis. Ms. Safiya said she remembered getting into trouble during this time: she came from the wrong side of the stage after going backstage to hang out with Mr. Williams.
After Mr. Williams graduated from high school, he enrolled at the University of Memphis for a bachelor’s degree in economics. He and Ms. Safiya stayed in touch, although their relationship remained platonic. They performed together on a local summer theater program, Echoes of Truth, where their performances included a play in which their characters went out.
Ms. Safiya and Mr. Williams insist that this was a coincidence. Still, it gave the two a preview of how the couple could officially be.
“We were just walking across the stage holding hands,” said Mr. Williams. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I could get used to that.'”
Then Ms. Safiya left the city.
After graduating from high school in 2009, she moved to Washington to study drama education at Howard University. But they stayed in touch as friends.
“We even talked about our other love relationships and were able to give each other really honest advice and reflection,” said Ms. Safiya. “One of the things that kept our relationship going is that we’re friends first and foremost.”
They kept in touch when Ms. Safiya Howard left in 2012 and moved to Brooklyn to pursue a music career in New York, a decision Mr. Williams admired.
“I was so inspired by their willingness to go to New York without a plan to … the thing, “he said.” She was chasing her dreams. “
After graduating from the University of Memphis, Mr. Williams worked for the Department of Housing and Community Development for the City of Memphis, then for an educational program at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. He also ran a local jazz club, the Dizzy Bird Lounge, and continued to perform in plays at the Hattiloo Theater.
When Ms. Safiya started releasing R&B music on Bandcamp and YouTube in 2013, Mr. Williams became more than just her boyfriend again: he was also a fan looking for her work. From time to time he even invited Ms. Safiya to appear on Dizzy Bird when she returned to Memphis to visit her family.
“I have to be honest,” he said. “I stood still”
Ms. Safiya was surprised to find that Mr. Williams had been following her music so closely from afar.
“I didn’t know if anyone was listening – I was pretty sure no one was listening,” she said. “But he would know the words.”
In November 2015, Ms. Safiya returned to Memphis for several months to help her brother and sister-in-law who were expecting their first child. The trip gave her and Mr. Williams an opportunity to spend more personal time together than they have in years, including a baby shower for her sister-in-law, which he hosted.
She was single at the time and he survived a breakup.
It was on this trip to Memphis, Ms. Safiya said, when she realized she was ready to try something formal with Mr. Williams. But he needed more time. When she returned to New York, however, her thoughts stayed with Mr. Williams in Memphis.
“I was ready to plant myself,” said Ms. Safiya.
When she decided to leave New York for Memphis in 2017, so was Mr. Williams.
He picked her up at the airport when she was withdrawn, and in the car they talked about their mutual willingness to forge a lasting romance. They made plans to go on a date – their first real date since meeting.
The couple had dinner outside at Ecco on Overton Park, a bistro in Memphis. That evening, Mr. Williams said, “We were brewing this kind of chemistry in this room that we hadn’t really allowed ourselves to think about or explore in years.”
Ms. Safiya added, “It felt like we were clearly entering a new chapter in our relationship.”
They moved into an apartment together a few weeks later and their current home in Memphis about a year later.
Mr Williams proposed in April 2021 when the couple were making a music video for a song by Ms. Safiya, who is an independent singer-songwriter based in Memphis. Mr. Williams works as an actor in Memphis; His most recent credits include a recurring role in the Starz drama “P-Valley”.
The two were married on September 5 in Mound City, a former farm being converted into an event venue and rental property in Marion, Ark. The couple decided to get married in this location based on its history.
“We picked it because it was on what was known as a burial place for Indigenous Americans, and then shared tenancy and presumably slavery,” said the bride. “We knew the country deserved to watch some black people feel joy.”
David Arnett, a Baptist pastor and uncle of the bride, presided over an outdoor ceremony in front of about 50 guests, most of them family members. It started with a libation ritual that the couple’s ancestors invited into the room and included several a cappella performances by friends of the newlyweds who jumped brooms after taking their vows. Masks were available for all guests.
In the interests of sustainability, both Ms. Safiya and Mr. Williams bought second-hand outfits. He was wearing a brown vintage suit from the Lucky Exchange Atlanta store; Her yellow floral dress was from Stormy Normy Vintage, a shop on Etsy. Both outfits included cowboy boots the couple bought at the Clothing Warehouse, an Atlanta boutique.
Recently, Mr. Williams said he noticed a change in Ms. Safiya. As a performer, he said, she has always had a heavy stage presence – “a warrior queen or a drunken saloon owner who berates the guests” – while her role offstage is one of “tenderness and awareness and softness”. But in the past six months or so, he said, that line has blurred.
“I’m watching these two species really merge,” said Mr. Williams.
On this day
When September 5, 2021
Where Hill town in Marion, ark.
The food The couple’s menu featured fried catfish, cornbread dressing, watermelon salad, cabbage, macaroni, and cheese.
The souvenirs As a gift, the guests received small bottles of Tabasco sauce.
The truck The day before the wedding, Mr. Williams bought an old, red Ford pickup, matching the farm theme of the wedding. He tied the back of Coca-Cola bottles, a trick he’d seen in movies. But off-screen the bottles turned out to be less romantic. “You made no sound,” he said.