UT theatre and dance student learns to break stereotypes

Lauren Zimmer

As Oktavea Williams gathered her school supplies in the SAC, a book called “How to Be Black” fell out of her purse. Williams said the satirical book is being used in her “Performing Blackness” course. 

Williams, a theatre and dance freshman, has been acting since the fourth grade; but, once she chose acting as her career, she decided theater would be her form of activism. 

Williams studies black stereotypes in theater by observing specific actors. She said she admires actors, such as Viola Davis, who play strong women of color.

“So many black characters have to be sassy,” Williams said. “So many are angry or obnoxious black women. I could go on and on.”

According to Williams, these stereotypes arise when people only study their own culture.

“I think when people don’t know someone’s history, it’s easy to make what is not understood into a caricature,” Williams said.

Since coming to UT, Williams has been looking for ways to break the archetypes of black women in theater. She is currently enrolled in courses such as “Languages of the Stage” and “Performing Blackness,” where she analyzes characters and their backgrounds. She said each character has a diverse story that should be shared, and communicating different stories helps bring peace into the world.

“I think there is so much more in the world, and I just want to help,” Williams said. “I think everyone has a duty to change society. I don’t know if I want to do it, but I think it just needs to be done. If no one else is doing it, I might as well do it.”

During her freshman year in high school, Williams became friends with Sterling Zapata.

“I’ve seen her perform in college, and what surprises me the most is that she’s a whole different person,” Zapata said. “It put something in my heart, and I didn’t know she could do that.”

Zapata said Williams continues to grow through the characters she plays. Zapata also said Williams has helped her become more aware of social issues. 

“I’m very stubborn, and I don’t like to listen to other points of views,” Zapata said. “[William’s] passion made me take the time to understand people’s beliefs and morals.” 

Patricia Kelly, theatre and dance junior, met Williams during their “Languages of the Stage” class. Since the start of course, Kelly said she has seen Williams become more confident.

“The class helps students become scholars, and I think it is helping [Williams] find her voice,” Kelly said.

Kelly said Williams is very open and will always answer difficult questions eloquently. 

“I love hearing her perspectives on things because it keeps me in perspective and keeps me thinking of what needs to change,” Kelly said.

In the future, Williams aspires to be a professional actor and have acting be her main form of activism.

“I think that theater is a form of healing,” Williams said. “You can heal so many people by acting as a bridge for their voice. I think that’s a big reason I love it.”