The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Tyler James Williams charms at Union, talks ‘Abbott Elementary’

Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Tyler James Williams stars as Gregory Eddie in “Abbott Elementary,” produced by ABC.

This Tuesday, a line wrapped its way around the inside of the Illini Union as students vied for a coveted spot to catch a glimpse of actor Tyler James Williams. Exuding charisma from the minute he walked into the room, Williams created a powerful and entertaining event.

The Illini Union Board organized the event featuring the award-winning actor as a part of their Speaker Series. It was presented by Christopher M. Span, professor in Education and associate chancellor of Administration and PreK-12 Initiatives. The Union additionally offered limited meet and greet spots to a select few who filled out a registration form. 

Jasmine Finley, Director of Enriching Programs for the Illini Union Board, shared her experience working on this particular presentation.

“We really choose the speakers based on the draw from the University of Illinois students,” Finley said. “So we really tried to pique their interest, see who’s on the top of their list, and Tyler was just right up there.”

Former Speaker Series guests include activist and writer Monica Lewinsky, who visited the University earlier in the semester, and other celebrities like Hassan Minhaj and David Dobrik in past years.

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Williams was welcomed with thunderous applause and cheering. More than a conversation, the event had a Q&A format, as the moderator, Span, asked a series of questions, some of which had been previously submitted by audience members.

Williams, who recently won a Golden Globe for his performance as Gregory Eddie on the ABC hit-show “Abbott Elementary,” — a mockumentary sitcom set in an underfunded school — recounted his experiences acting on everything from his most recent work to shows like “Everybody Hates Chris,” “The Walking Dead” and movies like “Let It Shine.”

While audience members ranged in age, most were college-aged students who would have grown up watching Williams on screen.

“Watching ‘Abbott,’ it’s just amazing because it’s like ‘Yeah, that happened to me’ and I only taught for around two years,” said audience member and graduate student Mayra Vazquez. “So I got to see him, not just for my childhood self, but for my adult self as well.”

Span highlighted the importance of William’s character in “Abbott Elementary,” an African American teacher who serves as a role model for young children. He shared figures that only a small percentage of African American men go into education, which Williams agreed with.

“That’s when the weight and the gravity of ‘Abbott’ really hit me like, OK, I have an opportunity here to invite particularly Black men into a conversation that is not only education but the education and rearing of the next generation at a very young age,” Williams said.

Beyond “Abbott Elementary,” Williams also talked about his experience in “Everybody Hates Chris,” which received a big cheer when mentioned, where he portrayed a fictionalized version of young Chris Rock. The crowd cheered even louder when they talked about the movie “Let It Shine,” where Williams played the role of a young talented rapper.  

He highlighted how much the entertainment industry has changed since he began working around 25 years ago, and how “Abbott Elementary” fit into the conversation.

“I can see ways in which the industry can be better and there can be more diverse stories that are being told, and I think that’s just shaking up the model and who is in positions of power and getting these stories out there,” Williams said. “As far as roles that I aspire to do, ‘Abbott Elementary’ is one of the best examples of that.”

Jovona Neely, an audience member and freshman in DGS, expressed her appreciation for Williams’s insight on everything from funny anecdotes to wise lessons.

“I definitely liked his answers, especially the ones that were more deep and how he really went into detail about things he was really passionate about,” Neely said. “Especially with ‘Abbott Elementary’ when he was talking about making sure that the audience who’s watching is really seen.”


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