Tramell Tillman’s first stage role was at age ten, in a church play. “I was petrified,” he remembers. “I had to say one line, ‘Hello. How are you?’ When I said the line, all the nerves went away, and I was enthralled by all the energy. I thought, ‘I really like this.’”
After studying at Xavier University in New Orleans and Jackson State in Mississippi, Tillman traveled to a U/RTA (University/Resident Theatre Association) audition in Chicago, where he caught the eye of UT’s Jed Diamond, associate professor of acting.
“He had a compelling personal presence,” says Diamond, “combining deep intelligence, unusual strength of character, a clear, strong voice, physical grace and power, emotional availability, and personal warmth.”
A year later, Tillman was recruited to the College of Arts and Sciences to pursue his MFA and perform at the Clarence Brown Theatre.
In 2012, Tillman sang “Too Darn Hot” in Kiss Me, Kate, his first time singing a solo on a professional stage. Among other roles, he has played Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol and George Murchison, the well-to-do suitor, in A Raisin in the Sun.
In February, Tillman took on a lead role in The Whipping Man. He played a freed slave who celebrates Passover of 1865 with his former owner, who is confronting the irony of being a Jewish slaveholder re-telling the story of the Jews gaining their freedom from slavery in Egypt.
“I’ve learned the power of theater,” Tillman says. “The other day in a directing class, [Assistant Professor] Kate Buckley asked, ‘Are you going to just do plays, or are you going to participate in society through theater?’ That hit home for me.”
It also brought him back to the day of the Sandy Hook school shooting, when he was performing in A Christmas Carol. The audience had seen the undertaker holding Tiny Tim’s crutch, and Tillman, as Bob Cratchit, had to comfort his family.
“I told them how beautiful Tim’s grave was. Everyone on stage had tears in their eyes, and the audience was totally silent,” Tillman says. “In that instant, I knew we were all taking a moment to think about those families in Connecticut. When we got offstage we were all sobbing and hugging. It was the most dynamic moment in theater that I have ever experienced. Everything was stripped away, and it was all about the human condition.”
“Mr. Tillman is a hugely talented and exciting actor,” says Diamond. “I expect him to do exceptionally well in his career.”
Photo by Dustin Brown