James started singing at the age of 5 at his father’s church. Consequently, music has become one of the essential elements in his incredibly rich biography. James began his semi-professional career as a club singer in Chicago, performing individually and fronting multiple bands—Black and multicultural alike–in a still racially-divided city. The band which he formed, Black Lightning, launched several hits in Chicago; all their songs were written by James. Black Lightning attracted attention of MCA Records for which the group recorded the promotional materials; however, an album was never released due to James’ temporarily leaving music for the sake of helping his father in church ministry (he returned to stage performance a few years later). During that time, he struggled to combine his artistic aspirations with working multiple jobs, and raising his young family.
James’ professional career started in Chicago with Ike & Tina Turner Revue. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, James performed throughout the U.S. with Scott Brothers, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green, Chicago, and the Chi-Lites, to name the most renowned artists. On his musical journey, James encountered B. B. King, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Stylistics, and many other R&B, funk, blues, and pop performers. He performed all over the United States, including at the White House with Lionel Hampton and the Chi-Lites for the National Republican Committee under the Nixon Administration, and at McCormick Place in Chicago. Grateful for the chance of working with the highest-class artists and learning the specifics of the music and entertaining industries, James regards his experience of that time also as one of the greatest opportunities to study human psyche.
Alongside music, theatre and writing have been James’ greatest passions. He has been writing poetry since his adolescence, whether in a form of song lyrics or epic poems. James started writing plays, acting, directing, and producing while studying English and theatre at Ball State University. He performed there in Sophocles’ Antigone in the title role, in Brian Clark’s Whose Life Is It Anyway, in William Vaughn Moody’s The Great Divide, and in Oscar Hammerstein’s II musical Show Boat, among many others. He also played Comte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas in Indianapolis. Yet, the role which James particularly cherishes, is Walter in A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, for which he received the Best Actor Award at the International Maytime Festival in Dundalk, Ireland in 1998.
James directed many stage productions, including musicals Godspell by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, and The Whiz based upon Sidney Lumet’s movie starring Michael Jackson. For directing Bruce Beresfort’s Driving Miss Daisy, James received the Best Show Award at the International Maytime Festival in Ireland, few years after receiving the Best Actor Award at the same contest. Most of all, James has performed in, directed, and produced his own plays.
Though careless with publishing his works, James staged many of his plays for the profit and non-for-profit causes. He wrote, composed, directed, and produced a musical One Day Before Midnight for then-aspiring young actress Cynda Williams, who happens to be his niece. The play, staged at Ball State University, focuses on a country music star and her life crisis. In What’s the Matter with Lonny James explores the issues of gender, masculinity, and the impact of the social and economic changes on lives of the Black blue-collar families in the rust-belt Midwestern cities. He directed this play in Los Angeles, performing the title role. The play was recognized with an award of the second place in a national playwright competition.
James’ artistic collaboration with Cynda Williams inspired him to write a monologue for her called Mother 4, 5, and 7. Here too, as in his other plays, James focuses on the Black American experiences and on their impact on mental health. The protagonist of the play is a Black mother of three children living in a ghetto of the West Side of Chicago, struggling with poverty and schizophrenia. Cynda competed with this monologue in Hollywood for one of the charity fundraising benefits, and won the competition. This sparked James’ interest in developing the monologue into a musical theatre production. He turned it into a two-act play, and has staged it through the multiple venues, including professional ones, such as the Embassy Theatre and Sweetwater Sound, Inc. in Fort Wayne, IN. Mother 5, 4, 7even has become a signature of James’ latest theatre works, as he has been performing it throughout the U.S. either by himself as a monologue, or as a multi-role production with Cynda Williams starring as Mother, to raise awareness of the impact of racism and poverty on mental health. In the Fort Wayne productions of Mother, James collaborated with Jessica Maria Montalvo as a singer in a role of Maria – a compassionate Latina sex worker and the best friend of Mother.
One of James’ still unfulfilled projects has been staging his sequel to his beloved play—Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. James sent his completed manuscript titled Until the Sun Rises to Robert N. Nemiroff, late Habsberry’s husband and a custodian of her estate. Nemiroff received it with the great interest but disagreed with James’ decision to eliminate Walter’s mother by death, saying that Hansberry would never accept the conclusion of the play. That influenced his decision in giving James permission to perform the play only on university campuses and the community theaters, but not to publish it. James shelved that project, though he maintains rights to the play.
In his various roles in performing arts, James also has provided training to the young actors. He coached Cynda Williams in the early stage of her career, and that experience brought him in contact with Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Joie Lee, and Wesley Snipes during the work on what proved to be Cynda’s highly acclaimed debut in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. Subsequently, James accompanied Cynda and Joie Lee in the Columbia Pictures delegation to Venice Film Festival to promote that picture.
Creative work took James to many places in the world, allowing him to meet people from different cultures. He appreciates this chance with humility and gratitude. He visited England, Ireland (which he loves), Wales, Scotland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Jamaica, Haiti, and few more. He particularly appreciates his visit in the former Soviet Union, just a few years before its dissolution. He traveled there with an international group of intellectuals and artists, as one of the representatives of the United States. He spent two weeks in the USSR, visiting Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Kyiv, and Odesa. He attended a symposium on Richard Wright at the Moscow State University, and took a part in a debate on multiculturalism on the Soviet TV. Yet, the memory which stuck with him was the 4th of July party at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow hosted by the Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr. and his wife. Mischievously trespassing the diplomatic protocol, James sat at a grand white Steinway piano at the ball hall, and started playing his improves. Soon, many guests gathered around him, as well as the alerted security, until the Ambassador’s wife, Rebecca, came to James asking him to continue playing for the guests, many moved to tears, stating that so many of them miss their homes, especially on that day, and his music brings them closer to their homeland.
James’ commitment to social justice came from his home. His father, Rev. Jacob C. Williams, Sr. was a United Methodist pastor in multiple churches throughout Midwest and the South. An intellectual and a writer, renowned for his social and political activism Rev. J. C. Williams collaborated with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other pastors in the Civil Rights Movement. He came to the national prominence after organizing all city protest against displaying the Confederate Flag on a high school in Muncie, IN. Inspired by his father, James engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. He participated in the March in Cicero (Chicago) and in the March on Washington which became formative experiences for him.
Engagement in the Civil Rights Movement and his own experiences of racisms made James particularly sensitive to the issues of social and political conflicts and the community violence, strengthening his commitment to the causes of equality, equity, and accountability. Since his adolescence, James has been engaged in ministry at his father’s churches and beyond, and in service to the communities which they served, performing various ministerial tasks as designated by the United Methodist Conference. He started his involvement in social work at the position of a case worker at the YMCA on the West Side of Chicago. There, he began to learn the realities of life in an inner-city, and he remains faithful to his commitment till this day.
In his multiple roles and positions, James served on Board of Directors of many social service agencies, including the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), Carriage House Clubhouse, the Nicolette Counseling, and the Headwaters Counseling, all in Fort Wayne, IN. Through his involvement with NAMI, James worked on the suicide prevention program of the Fort Wayne Police Department, and in Crime Victims Care (CVC) of Allen County, IN (now Amani Family Services). He was a member of the Multicultural Council Steering Committee of the Multicultural Council of Fort Wayne, and a co-facilitator of the Mental Health Workgroup for that organization. James also served on the Park Center’s Advisory Board, Suicide Prevention and Aftercare group. He has also worked as a life coach and a national speaker for Mental Health Awareness. He taught as a visiting artist at Ball State University, and in 2021, with Alicja Kusiak-Brownstein, as a guest lecturer he co-taught a graduate seminar „History that Hurts and Heals: Trauma-Informed Practices in Public History“ at Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences („Shaninka“).
Since mid-March 2022, together with Alicja Kusiak-Brownstein James has been co-leading supervision-introvision group for Ukrainian psychotherapists working inside and outside of Ukraine. He serves with emotional support and transfer of knowledge to those who serve their nation impacted by the war. This role he cherishes in particularly, as he understands the magnitude of the psychological interventions and challenges of the services provided by heroic Ukrainian therapists. He also feels particularly close to Ukraine, as he once visited Kyiv and Odesa.
As a counselor, James has worked with people from all social strata, the privileged and underserved populations alike, including immigrants and refugees from Myanmar, Rwanda, and the Latin American countries. He specializes in culturally responsive therapy, treating complex trauma and moral injury, always staying sensitive to the creative and spiritual aspects in mental health. His motto is “Life is for others”.