Tonight, tonight will be just any night for Michelle Harris.
The soft-spoken Brigham Young University undergraduate and budding dancer will spend the evening as usual, studying in her room. She would much rather be rehearsing dances for the student production of "West Side Story." But when Harris auditioned for a role in that play, she was turned down because she is black.
"I had nobody to pair her with because the implication is that the couples were involved physically," explained the student director, who felt she could not cast Harris as one of the teen-age girls who dance with young men in the play. "I myself had no qualms about pairing her with a white man, but . . . community members might have been upset at the implications."
The incident has caused an uproar across the big, modern campus of the Mormon church college. Administrators reprimanded the student director and said her action violates the church's firm antidiscrimination policy.
But Harris has still not been given a role in the play. Some students and the student newspaper have denounced her for complaining publicly about the way she was treated.
To Harris and some of her friends, the "West Side Story" incident reflects unusual circumstances facing any black in the Rocky Mountain West and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the area's strongest religious organization.
In most of the West, blacks are so scarce they are almost invisible. In most states between Kansas and California, blacks comprise less than 1 percent of the population.
"When I came out here from Allentown [Pa.]," Harris said, "I looked around and said, 'Hey, isn't there anybody black here?' Somebody told me there are some blacks up in Salt Lake City, but I guess I haven't been up there on the right days."
The two dozen blacks among Brigham Young's 27,000 students tend to be objects of curiosity. The school draws 40 percent of its student body from Utah and Idaho -- states where blacks comprise, respectively, 0.6 percent and 0.3 percent of the population. "Many of our students are from a culture where they rarely see black people, so they do tend to stare," said Brent Harker, a university spokesman.
Brigham Young's student body is about 98 percent Mormon, and those who come here tend to be orthodox followers of church mandates. They adhere strictly to the college's grooming code: "Beards are not acceptable. Mustaches are not encouraged . . . the no-bra look is unacceptable at BYU." They obey church dictates against drinking stimulants: coffee is not offered at the Cougareat, the student cafeteria, and there is no beer at student parties.
Students at "The Y" also share some general values of Mormon society: a strong sense of community, a deep fear of animosity from non-Mormons and a belief that God directs human life through divine revelation. In a letter to the editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Universe, a female student recently warned her peers about a college youth wooing dates using the line, "I have had a revelation that you are to be my eternal companion."
For most of its 160-year history, the church also followed a revelation that blacks were inferior. The 19th-century church leader Brigham Young set the rule that blacks could not be admitted to the Mormon priesthood, saying it was God's will that blacks should serve "their masters, their superiors."
Many Christian denominations held that position before the Civil War, but the Mormons were much slower than others to change. While church leaders elsewhere were prominent in civil rights efforts of the 1960s, the Mormons published a pamphlet by Ezra Taft Benson, the church's current president and prophet, titled "Civil Rights -- Tool of Communist Deception."
It was not until 1978 that the Mormon leadership announced a new revelation establishing full equality for blacks within the church.
That turnabout greatly expanded the church's missionary activity; for the first time, Mormons started carrying their message to blacks. The expansion, in turn, brought Harris into the Mormon church.
"I was walking down the street in Allentown," she recalled, "high on drugs, with my hair all punked up, and the most amazing thing happened to me. These two white boys in white shirts and ties started talking to me."
Late in 1984, the two young missionaries converted Harris to the Mormon faith -- "the best thing that ever happened to me," she said. "My mother was afraid I was joining some cult. But now she sees how the church has saved me, saved my life, and she's very happy."
The young woman gave up drugs and other stimulants. "I still miss a cup of coffee in the morning," she said. A college dropout, she decided to re-enroll, and came to her new church's flagship campus last year. Harris says she loves her church and her college, and was reluctant to say anything when she was turned down for a dancing part in "West Side Story."
"I was afraid people would think, 'Oh, those Mormons, they're bigots,' " she said. "But I finally decided as a black woman I had to complain, to stand up for myself."
Faculty and administators were supportive and agreed that she had been treated wrongly. They told the student director to make recompense, and the director offered Harris a nonperforming position as assistant to the director. Harris declined.
She said the incident "has made it sort of hard for me to go up on campus, because some kids have been really vindictive, you know, saying I was hurting the church."
This view has been reflected in the student paper, which shares the pervasive Mormon fear of ridicule and persecution from outsiders.
"We are under close scrutiny by people . . . who love to capitalize on the slips we make," an editorial said last week. The paper concluded that the "West Side Story" incident "seems to point to an inherent public relations problem at BYU rather than a problem with discrimination."