First residents, Almetris Co-Op, University of Texas at Austin, 1958. Barbara Smith is the tall woman in the middle of the last row. Attributed to: UT Austin
Published March 12, 2020
BY LAUREN GOODMAN
Acting junior Kayla Johnson said she’d always wanted to do a play at The University of Texas at Austin that was “unapologetically black.”
After watching “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston, Johnson pitched the show to the UT Theatre and Dance Department.
With an entirely black cast, theater and dance students performed “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet,” a story of a teenage boy coming to terms with his identity, at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre from Feb. 26 to March 8. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, playwright and screenwriter of “Moonlight,” the play shows the intersectionality of race, class and sexual orientation in the coming-of-age drama, according to the theatre department website.
Johnson, who played Marcus’ best friend Shaunta Iyun, said the character was a version of herself she wanted to play from the first time she saw the show.
“I don't get to play characters like this at all,” Johnson said. “I am not this larger-than-life character… but there is a version of me that is like that.”
This role, Johnson said, was one of the few that spoke to her as an African American student.
“Some of the plays that are selected here … don't speak to me because there's so much that (black students) can do,” Johnson said. “We don't always audition for certain things because it just ... isn't for us.”
“Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” is among the few UT plays performed by an all-black cast. Dance junior Kialond Bronson-Smith said that the show for her was a “historic moment.”
“I was shocked when I did hear that it was going to be an all-black cast… but for me, I feel this can be liberating that these shows have value,” Bronson-Smith said. “We do have a place here and it's being very known and it's showing through the work that we do and produce.”
Bronson-Smith said she was proud to be a part of UT’s history in showing how race relations have evolved. Her performance comes nearly 63 years after a black student was controversially removed from a show due to her race.
Opera singer Barbara Smith Conrad was among the first class of African American undergraduates at UT in 1956 after the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education mandated that all schools integrate, according to the Society of Southwest Archives at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. After Conrad earned the lead role of Dido in the opera “Dido and Aeneas,” Texas legislators objected to an interracial relationship onstage between her character and the other lead. Legislators pressured UT President Logan Wilson to remove her from the cast.
Donnie Albert, senior lecturer in voice at the Butler School of Music, met Conrad while working on the opera production of “Porgy and Bess” at the Olympic Arts Festival in Montreal, Canada and learned about her past at UT.
“If you saw (Conrad) perform then you knew how great she was given the times that she came along and the problems she had to endure here,” Albert said. “It's just a part of racism in this country. It's a history that we have not dealt with on any level.”
Albert said he has only one African American student in the classes he teaches due to the competitive process and the small number of black applicants. African American students make up 4% of UT’s undergraduate population, according to the fall 2018 survey on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System from the National Center for Education Statistics. Out of 40,804 total undergraduate students at, there are approximately 1,632 African American students.
Despite the lack of black students in the fine arts, Johnson said, the play helped cement the bond among the entire cast and strengthen their community.
“When you're surrounded by a majority of people that don't look like us, it actually makes us stronger,” Johnson said. “And a lot of us now are my family.”
Johnson said that she hoped the performance proved that black people don’t have to be typecast. Just as “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” explored themes of self-identity, Johnson said that she’s learned a lot about herself being a black student at UT.
“Me being surrounded by a predominantly white population — it doesn't intimidate me at all,” Johnson said. “I know the power that I have and I know who I am. That's the most amazing thing about this cast, a lot of us know who we are. And we indulge in that idea of it, too.”