Isaiah Mark Owens’ mom wanted him to be a neurosurgeon, but there was a problem.
“I don’t do blood,” Owens said with a shudder.
He thought about being a NASA engineer but, similar to neurosurgery, “I don’t do math.”
He took culinary classes during his last three years at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and thought he might want to be a chef. “I can make a mean chess square.”
But he also took acting classes in high school and, when all was said and done, the thrill of acting stuck. The end result is a degree in theater he earned in December 2023 after enrolling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a freshman.
“I love acting, and I love what it brings me. A sense of fulfillment,” he said. “I want something that’s long-lasting, and I think acting is long-lasting for me. It doesn’t have to be theater or film. It can just be any kind of acting, and I’ll be content.”
Boisterous and chatty with frequent hand and arm flourishes, Owens is a theatrical role unto himself. But it’s a sincere role and not just an attention-grabbing performance.
“His enthusiasm for whatever he is doing is contagious,” said Steve Ray, associate head of the UTC Department of Theatre. “This makes people want to work with him. You know you are going to have fun if Isaiah is involved.
“Isaiah is a natural leader. He tends to fall into positions where he is asked to make something happen. He always brings great energy to whatever he is doing, whether it’s acting, helping with theater publicity or organizing events.”
To say Owens has been involved in campus life is like saying it’s hot in the summer. His resume—and he’s intensely aware of the importance of having lots of accomplishments on his resume—includes:
- Homecoming King 2022
- President of the Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honors Society chapter and now its presidential advisor
- Student Government Association Freshman Senate marketing director, Freshman Senate member and now Freshman Senate advisor
- Member of the Honors College and Honors Ambassador
- Campus orientation leader
- Member of the Littleton H. Mason Singers
- Member of Brother2Brother
- Member of the Black Student Alliance as a freshman
- Member of Residence Hall Association as a freshman
“Being here at UTC, I saw many different opportunities to grow my leadership skills and then my social skills in general and see my reach,” he said.
“My whole philosophy was: How can I act onstage in a genuine manner if I don’t really see different aspects of life? So that’s why I did all the things I’ve done, just get those different aspects.”
In his senior year, he said he turned most of his attention to diversity, equity and social issues.
“My focus this year is just on community, most importantly, diversity in community and finding my place as a black man on campus,” he said.
Gaye Jeffers, professor of directing, theater history and playwriting at UTC, said the phrase “committed to building community” immediately comes to mind when thinking about Owens.
“He’s incredibly creative in ways that I don’t think he truly has tapped into yet,” she said.
“If you have all of these things that appeal to you, and you refuse to ignore any of them, then you’re kind of building up all these things that you’re feeding yourself. So when you finally do cook your meal, it’s going to have some great ingredients in it.”
In his four years at UTC, Owens has performed in 11 theater productions and for Chattanooga theater companies such as Barking Legs Theater and Obvious Dad.
In late January, he plans to attend the University Resident Theatre Association event in Chicago, a chance for students to audition in front of almost 50 universities with the hope of being accepted to graduate school.
Owens intends to attend graduate school, whether or not one chooses him at the Chicago event. Earning a graduate degree is a career move, he said.
“In grad school, I won’t be doing any extra stuff. I’ll be focusing strictly on acting and how I can access it in the best manner and hopefully just grow connections from that,” he said.
Making connections has never been a problem for Owens, considering his work with campus organizations and the Department of Theatre. Being around people is just part of his lifeblood, he said.
“I relish social contact and the fact that I want to speak to people. Being in your room all day doesn’t really contribute too much. You go to class; you might go for a bite to eat; and you go home. You might go to your job, but that’s it,” Owens said.
“I am someone who can’t do that. When the wheel stops, then you feel still; you feel stuck; you feel solid. And I want a fluid life.”