"Hello. Goodbye."

Two words; that's the entire line. And a 10-year-old Tramell Tillman is "absolutely petrified" to say them.

"I was doing a church play and I had one line and was scared to do it," Tillman, a now 28-year-old MFA in Theater, said of his first moment on stage. "But I got up there and I had fun and enjoyed what I was doing, and there was just this electricity that happened."

Now boasting far more critically acclaimed notches in his theatrical belt than Sunday school productions, Tillman's Knoxville work has included roles in "A Raisin in the Sun," "The Little Prince" and "The Whipping Man." At the end of the month, he will take his final turn on Clarence Brown Theatre's stage with "Monty Python's Spamalot," a production he calls a "truly collaborative effort."

"It's a great way to end my graduate career here at UT," he said.

With graduation this May promising to see the Maryland-born actor returning north to a New York theater company, Tillman said he will leave Knoxville with a freshly acquired appreciation of community spirit.

"I've grown so much since I've come here, not just artistically but as a person," he said. "I've learned so many things about who I am as a person, enhancing my social skills, learning how to survive and understanding that you can't do everything on your own."

During his second year as a MFA student, Tillman was subject to an incident that forced the self-described "extreme independent" to open himself to the need for community support.

"I was walking alone on the Hill and I was the only African American there when a car pulled up in front of me and they yelled, 'White power, white power," he said. "Immediately I froze in my tracks and turned and looked around. I was in a crowd of people, but I was alone because clearly they were talking to only me."

Tillman, who came to Knoxville from an environment of acute racial violence in Jackson, Miss., felt threatened to the point of questioning whether he could continue with his studies at UT. Formerly opposed to allowing strangers into his "bubble," he made the decision to reach out to classmates and faculty mentors, including Head of Acting Jed Diamond, for support.

"Tramell was brave enough to open up with his ensemble and his faculty about how it affected him," Diamond said. "To bring that into the room and try to process a piece of it openly is an act of courage and trust and faith that Tramell initiated and carried through with great strength of character.

"We tried to stand with him in the pain with the respect and sympathy and love we bear him."

Tillman is "grateful" for the resulting flood of camaraderie he received from the theater department.

"I was reminded there were people around me who cared and did not feel that same way as those people with their ugliness," he said.

The dialogue this event opened about the historical and modern impacts of racism proved a helpful tool for February's production of "The Whipping Man," in which Tillman played a former slave at the end of the Civil War.

"I can't express the joy and amazement I got when people came up to me and said my work in 'The Whipping Man' touched them, that it was rewarding, how they were in tears," Tillman said. "It was a controversial piece of theater and I wasn't even sure how it was going to do in Knoxville, but the community embraced it."

The actor's mother was one such touched audience member.

"I could not explain how elated I was (to see it)," said Jae Tillman, who was originally "flabbergasted" by her son's switch from studying pre-med to acting as an undergraduate. "In the church plays he performed in Maryland, we always stressed to him, 'Be in character' ... it's up to you to bring that character to life and make us feel it. And I think that's what he does when he is on stage."

Johanna Dunphy, fellow third-year MFA in Theater who has co-starred with Tillman in five CBT productions, said she finds inspiration in his dedication to fully fleshing out characters.

"Even when the show is open, he's always searching for what makes his characters tick," Dunphy said. "His need to search is infectious, and he inspired me to keep digging to find what was at the core of the people we were playing.

"He dives into a character and presents a full version as opposed to a performative version of a human being."

Tillman, who stresses he always approaches his roles as "people, not characters," finds this ability to delve into other psyches and give a voice to larger ideals or underrepresented groups "empowering."

"I'm not on stage performing for myself, it's for society and to give a message or be a mirror for someone else to speak through," Tillman said. "That's the kind of work I want to do, and to be able to continue my work not just on a local level, but on a national and even international level in order to make a profound impact in my craft."