Joe Wilson Jr. knows what it means to be a director.
“The most important job as a theater director is how I set the table,” Wilson told me, in an interview in the afternoon before the Super Bowl on February 12. “It’s to create an environment where people trust each other, and are therefore engaged in honest, thoughtful, respectful collaboration.”
Over the past 18 seasons at Trinity Repertory Company, Wilson has acted, written and directed. Starting this year, though, Wilson has embraced the director title in a new context after being appointed by Providence Mayor Brett Smiley as the city’s director of the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism. While it’s a new kind of role for the 30-year veteran actor, it’s not out of character for Wilson to seek opportunities to support others.
Before Wilson became a household name in Providence – in fact, before he even studied acting – he had been interested in running for office, and studied law as a way of advocating for his community. Before he graduated, though, he took some acting lessons, “caught the bug” and switched gears. Wilson described his journey from his hometown in New Orleans first to Notre Dame, then Minneapolis, then to New York City, and finally to his adopted home of Providence. “I have thrived best when I have been allowed to invest and engage in the community,” Wilson said.
“The vision for a director is only a vision- until you add the people. We enter a partnership, a collaboration, and one must be flexible,” Wilson said. “The mayor says he wants Providence to be the best run city in the country, and to do that you have to take care of people. My approach to this work is all about people.”
The Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism is a very different department than others in the city. “What makes my department different is that we lead with a raw connection to the mind and the heart,” Wilson explained. “We are working to excavate, and celebrate our stories and our truth. We have immediate relationships with people that sometimes the general public doesn’t have an appreciation for. We use and advocate for creative practice to realize the best of ourselves and others.”
Wilson described the most essential part of directing the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism as building culture within his department. “My department hasn’t had a transition like this before, so while some new processes are making things difficult, it’s also making us stronger,” he said. “A reset is not a bad thing.”
Wilson heaped praise on his predecessors. “I love Lizzie [Araujo],” Wilson said, “Her grace and generosity during this transition was unparalleled. I stand on the shoulders of Cliff [Wood], of Lynn [McCormack], of Stephanie [Fortunato], of Lizzie [Araujo], of Gina [Rodriguez-Drix], of all these folks who have come before. I stand on their shoulders.”
“I don’t want to mess this up,” Wilson said, after admitting that he wanted to use a word more profane than “mess,” “But I’m not here to maintain the status quo. I’m here to add and strengthen the legacy of what this department has brought to the City of Providence, as an artist of thirty years.”
Wilson wants to have a transparent process around public art, and believes that the community should decide how to celebrate, commemorate, and where to invest its resources.
He knows what’s at stake for local artists, “down to what it means to wait for several weeks or months to get paid,” Wilson said. “As a person who’s spent thirty years as an artist cobbling a career together, I can speak with understanding,” he said. “I have a responsibility to people.”
Wilson spoke eloquently and fervently about the power of art to bring people together, and about the importance of incorporating creative practice into every aspect of civic life. When we think through a creative lens, “We are forced to see ourselves in other peoples’ stories,” Wilson said. “It’s where we find our humanity.”
Wilson also acknowledged the importance of political leadership’s affirmation to breathe life and legitimacy into the local arts scene. “It elevates, and gives us a different sense of the importance of art,” he said.
When asked about the balance between bringing national talent and supporting local artists, Wilson leaned strongly towards the local. “I’m from New Orleans, and New Orleans is all about the locals,” he said. “New Orleans would not be New Orleans without the understanding that local art is a commodity.”
Continuing on the theme of his hometown, Wilson addressed the importance of neighborhoods. “What makes the city special is not just the confines of downtown — when you go to New Orleans, you don’t just stay on Bourbon street,” Wilson explained, before emphasizing the importance of showcasing and investing in every neighborhood of the city.
“We hear a lot about Massachusetts. But what a rich, cultural dynamic we have — the stories that we have to tell are as rich and as deep as anywhere in the country,” Wilson said. “It’s not about us becoming something else — it’s about being the best of who we are.”
“Every city has its challenges and legacies. My mission is: Let’s celebrate and identify what makes Providence special. What is the Providence sound? What is the Providence vibe?”
Wilson reflected positively on Providence’s tiny footprint: “There’s an immediacy, and vibrancy of the city that is amplified as a result of our size. The size of this community is where we derive our power- we live in communion due to our geography. It’s easy to make connections.”
Wilson also noted the dual pragmatic and esoteric priorities of his role: “My job is to make sure people are paid, and make sure [Providence’s] story has been told, and also to tell it. And I plan on doing that, wherever I go.”
Wilson noted that his selection as director of Art, Culture and Tourism is “exhibit A of a community who trusts its artists.”
Progress is already being made at Wilson’s Art, Culture, and Tourism department. Currently planned is an economic impact assessment of the Providence nightlife, which will make recommendations to safely and sustainably continue to develop this important sector of the city economy. “Out of these recommendations will come conversations with the community to meet the needs of the city, to develop a healthy nightlife sector,” Wilson says. He prioritizes safety, quality of life for nightlife-adjacent residents, and opportunities for small businesses to flourish. “Nightlife isn’t the enemy. It’s part of a vibrant city. We want to be able to [develop nightlife] in a way that is safe, equitable, productive, and fruitful.”
I had to ask about PVDFest. “We can’t be a city worth its salt if we can’t have a flagship festival that empowers local artists,” Wilson declared. That said, there will be some changes to PVDFest this year: Wilson explained that “there’s stuff that we learned from COVID-19,” and that while there will still be a big weekend festival, his department will also look to decentralize the celebrations across the city so that everyone can interact and engage. “It will look a little different, but the idea remains the same,” he said.
Unfortunately, we won’t see Wilson at Trinity Rep anytime soon, unless he’s in the audience. “I am taking a hiatus from acting and directing,” he said. “I will at some point intersect again in a much more active way with my creative practice, but right now I am focusing my energies, intentions, and heart on serving the people of Providence.”
“People say, ‘Oh my god, you’re not going to be at Trinity anymore!’ But I’ve been on stage for thirty years,” he continued. “The grind has led me to a place of feeling a need to let it lie for a bit. This experience will give me a deeper appreciation for what my role is as an art-maker.”
In parting, I asked Wilson which Trinity production he participated in that reminded him the most of Providence. The unsurprising answer: The Prince of Providence. “That show kept us alive,” he said. “The success of that show helped keep us afloat during the most challenging time for American theater.” Approaching the character of Buddy Cianci as an artist gave him a different perspective on the local legend: “That’s the beauty of art-making — I can’t judge a thing, I have to be that thing,” he said. “Our stories, our narratives are complicated. It’s not, who’s a hero or who’s a villain — I’m asked, as an artist, to be all of that.”
“That was the most uniquely Providence thing I’ve ever done,” Wilson remarked. “It spoke to the complexities of this city that we’ve all come to love: both its fascination with the drama, but also the need and desire to imagine itself as something bigger — to be challenged, to transform, and to punch above our weight.”
After all, most cities have politicians, but Providence has a prince.
After our talk, Wilson told me he’d be glued to the TV all night for the big game. It seemed to me that rather than Chiefs or Eagles, he was on team Rhianna.
Providence is in good hands.