The Black Theater Ensemble will address material that it’s left largely untouched with its fall production, “Bulrusher.”
“I think this play straddles some things which I don’t think Black Theater Ensemble has touched, since I’ve been here at least, which is sexuality, specifically homosexuality, or bisexuality,” President Bintu Conteh, CC ’14, said. “I think that’s really important because that’s something that is not talked about when you see black theater or minority theater, because sometimes there’s a taboo on it, so I think that’s very interesting that we’re bringing that to our group.”
The troupe will perform Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated play from Nov. 14-16.
The production of “Bulrusher,” to be performed by a cast of six, is set in 1955 in Northern California. It is centered on the story of Bulrusher, a young girl who is found floating in a basket on the river as an infant, reminiscent of the biblical story of Moses. As an 18-year-old still forming her identity and searching for answers about her racially ambiguous heritage, she encounters the beautiful Vera, a black woman from Birmingham, Ala., who disrupts Bulrusher’s world and forces her to reconsider herself and society. Their relationship is at the core of the play’s exploration of the themes of race, sexuality, and gender.
Although the play explores specific issues, it also contains universal messages, director Leon Hendrix, an MFA film student at the School of the Arts, said.
“If you take any person out of their upbringing or society and say, ‘What do you think of it?’ their understanding of that world is quite different from what the people around them would say,” Hendrix said. “It’s about the idea of breaking out of the box that the people around you need you to be in.”
Hendrix was drawn to this concept.
The principal character “has some agency because she starts out as a young woman who looks and observes and meeting this woman helps her realize that there are things she wants, that there are things she can say,” he said.
Hendrix’s experience as a graduate student director has been a different element of this fall’s production.
“He definitely has had more experience. ... He has a different work ethic because he’s not in the undergraduate environment, so I think we’re learning from each other,” Conteh said. “It’s cool to work with someone who is actively going for this profession.”
Conteh, who has participated in many theater groups and productions on campus, noted the importance of collaboration among members of all experience levels in BTE productions.
“With BTE there are people who are novices and have never done theater before and just want to try it out, but with Leon and some other people it’s just their life of creating art,” Conteh said. “So I love that opportunity to learn from him the same way I’m learning from newer people.”
The Black Theater Ensemble was founded by students in order to counter a lack of campus theater featuring minority roles.
“Years later, we still look at our mission as devoted to creating a space for minority playwrights and roles for minority actors on campus,” Conteh said. “We are called the Black Theater Ensemble, but I always like to think of it more so as an all-inclusive group where we are actively creating some type of space for minority performers and artists.”
Conteh and Hendrix agree that “Bulrusher” is another manifestation of BTE’s mission to expand the theatrical possibilities on campus to include as many backgrounds as possible.
“Historically, the authority to interpret and record and account the events and perspectives and characters that exist within a community has done a lot of damage. … There are perspectives, there are people, there are lives that are outside of the main narrative that we see and hear every day when we see most Broadway shows or read most books,” Hendrix said. “The stories are no less important though. I think that is a statement that has to be made.”
For Conteh, this is a mission relevant to all students interested in sharing, discovering, and creating new stories.
“Black Theater Ensemble, I think, was created to be an all-inclusive group,” Conteh said. “Don’t let the name fool you. When it was created it was a very radical move to make … but I think I always want to make it clear to people that the point of the theater group is to provide a platform so that we can try to tell the stories of many different people, and it’s part of our mission to tell the story of many different people.”
“Bulrusher” will play in Lerner Black Box from Nov. 14-16 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 with a CUID and $6 for non-CUIDs.