Unmasking the Talent: Introducing the Standout Students of the Musical Theater Center

Unmasking the Talent: Introducing the Standout Students of the Musical Theater Center

As I stroll through the bustling halls of the Musical Theater Center, I can’t help but be captivated by the infectious energy and undeniable talent that radiates from every corner. This place is a veritable treasure trove of young artists, each one more impressive than the last, who are honing their craft and leaving audiences spellbound.

Let me introduce you to Quanda Johnson, a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary theatre studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had the pleasure of interviewing Quanda a couple of years ago, and let me tell you, this woman is a force to be reckoned with. With a resume that reads like a who’s who of the theatre world, Quanda is the embodiment of what it means to be a multi-talented, passionate, and socially conscious artist.

As Quanda shared with me in our conversation, her path to the stage has been anything but conventional. She started off with an engineering scholarship, but after the sudden loss of her mother, she followed her true calling and pursued her love for the performing arts. She’s a Broadway veteran, having been in the original cast of “Ragtime” and performing alongside the legendary Carol Channing in the Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!” Not to mention her three master’s degrees and her Fulbright Scholarship.

But Quanda’s talents extend far beyond the stage. She’s a polymath, seamlessly shifting between academic research, writing, singing, activism, and poetry. And let me tell you, her work is not for the faint of heart. Quanda delves into the harrowing narratives of enslaved women in the Americas, bringing their stories to life with raw, gut-wrenching honesty.

One of Quanda’s latest projects, “I Know My Robe Gonna Fit Me Well I Tried It On at the Gates of Hell,” explores the Black female voice in Atlantic slavery, a perspective that has long been silenced and overshadowed by male narratives. As she so eloquently puts it, “The Black female voice in the Western Hemisphere has been virtually invisible. There are a lot of slave narratives in the archives, mostly Black male voices. Very few Black female voices had agency to write their narratives.”

Quanda’s dedication to amplifying these forgotten voices is truly inspiring. She’s not afraid to tackle the tough issues, the ones that make people uncomfortable, the ones that force us to confront the ugly realities of our past. And she does it all with a commanding presence and a remarkable ability to captivate her audience.

But Quanda’s talents don’t stop there. She’s also using her platform to champion the work of other Black artists and activists, like her involvement with Fermat’s Last Theater Company’s production of “An Evening with James Baldwin.” As Quanda explains, “Fermat’s Last Theater is an incredible opportunity for those of us in the performing arts to have a chance to do the work of both creative making and activism.”

And let me tell you, Quanda’s performance in this production is nothing short of spellbinding. She masterfully navigates the complexities of Baldwin’s work, seamlessly weaving together his powerful poetry and prose with her own soulful renditions of Negro spirituals. It’s a testament to her versatility as an artist and her unwavering commitment to using her craft as a tool for social change.

But Quanda’s journey hasn’t been without its challenges. As she shared with me, her very first week in Madison was marked by an ugly racist incident on State Street. It’s a sobering reminder of the systemic racism that still plagues our society, and Quanda’s response to it is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

“I penned an eloquent opinion piece for the Aug. 1 edition of the New York Daily News,” Quanda tells me. “I call for a federal apology for the harms of slavery, no such apology has ever been issued, trace my lineage back to an enslaved woman born in 1781, and recall the 1916 lynching of a relative in South Carolina.”

It’s a powerful and profound statement, one that speaks to the ongoing struggle for racial justice and the deep-rooted trauma that continues to haunt the descendants of the enslaved. And Quanda is using her voice, her talent, and her platform to confront these issues head-on, refusing to be silenced or deterred.

As I listen to Quanda recount her experiences, I can’t help but be in awe of her resilience, her passion, and her unwavering commitment to her craft and her cause. She’s a true inspiration, a shining example of what can be achieved when you fearlessly follow your convictions and use your talents to create positive change.

But Quanda is just one of the many exceptional students who call the Musical Theater Center home. Take, for instance, Melvin Hinton, another local standout who will be sharing the stage with Quanda in the “An Evening with James Baldwin” production. Melvin is a captivating storyteller, with a deep well of personal anecdotes and encounters with the literary icon himself.

“Melvin Hinton will read Baldwin’s prose and share stories from his encounters with Baldwin in Paris and Madrid,” Quanda tells me. “There will also be dancing by UW’s Akiwele Burayidi and music by bassist Oliver Gomez.”

It’s a veritable feast for the senses, a testament to the collaborative spirit that permeates the Musical Theater Center. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the remarkable talent that can be found within these walls.

As I wander the halls, I can’t help but be struck by the palpable energy and the sheer level of dedication that these students bring to their craft. They’re not just here to put on a show – they’re here to push the boundaries of what’s possible, to challenge the status quo, and to use their talents as a force for positive change.

Take, for example, the center’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” a co-production of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opera and theater departments. Quanda’s performance as Jack’s Mother in this production was nothing short of electrifying, a powerful blend of raw emotion and technical virtuosity that left the audience spellbound.

But what’s perhaps most remarkable about these students is their unwavering commitment to their craft, even in the face of adversity. The past year has been a challenging one, with the COVID-19 pandemic upending the traditional theater landscape. But these young artists have refused to be deterred, adapting and innovating to find new ways to share their talents with the world.

Whether it’s exploring the complex themes of social justice through their performances, or using their platforms to amplify the voices of marginalized communities, these students are proving that the power of the arts is not just about entertainment, but about creating meaningful change.

And as I reflect on my time at the Musical Theater Center, I can’t help but feel inspired and hopeful. These young artists are the future of the performing arts, and they’re proving that the stage is not just a platform for self-expression, but a powerful tool for social and cultural transformation.

So if you find yourself in the Madison area, I urge you to make a stop at the Musical Theater Center. Step inside and be prepared to be captivated, challenged, and ultimately, transformed by the sheer talent and passion of these remarkable students. It’s a journey you won’t soon forget.

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