Brianna Johnson, BC ’21, is one of the few Black students in her year who is a theater major. Had she not been inspired by her work with the Black Theatre Ensemble, she might have completely changed her route.
“I saw people who were doing [theater] that looked like me, so I was like, “Why can’t I do that?’” Johnson said. “I think it’s a great space for Black people to see, ‘You can do this, and theater is also your space as well as everybody else’s space.’”
While theater on campus has historically lacked racial diversity, members of BTE have worked together to forge a safe space where they can connect through a mutual love for theater. BTE, one of Columbia’s many theater groups on campus, is dedicated to highlighting and uplifting the voices and narratives of Black students on campus.
“It’s a really nice space to feel not only seen but just comfortable speaking how we want to speak, speaking about the things we want to speak about without it being overly racialized,” Madison Hatchett, BC ’22, said. “Just feeling like you can be yourself and you’re not performing.”
Members of BTE went on to explain that predominantly white theater groups may diminish Black voices and experiences, sometimes unintentionally.
“Coming here, the other clubs are very white-dominated and the narratives are very centered on that experience,” Hatchett said. “Even if it’s not intentional, there’s also this cloud of ignorance about a lot of different things and you can feel that as the only person of color in the room.”
BTE’s mission is to support Black actors, playwrights, and those simply interested in theater by creating a space for members to creatively express themselves. It does so by putting on performances, musicals, and showcases.
In the past, BTE has put on the plays such as “Booty Candy,” the musical “Dreamgirls,” and a few smaller showcases that it has put on in the past two years that highlight a range of Black artists’ work on campus. The group also spends time attending shows and performances in New York City, raising money, and buying tickets for low-income members. However, what makes this group especially successful according to its members is the tight-knit bonds people are able to forge.
“We are all really, really close. We hang out outside of meetings and we get breakfast together, and I think that you don’t really find that in bigger groups and other theater groups,” Jordyn Tomlin, CC ’21, said. “We obviously have to work together, but I think being a family is pretty important to BTE, and fostering those connections is important.”
Despite the empowering community that this group has formed, members have also cited how being the Black theater group on campus has led to instances of perceived tokenism, such as the club being used for members’ race rather than their talent. According to Timlin, some groups have taken advantage of BTE’s predominantly Black community to diversify their own.
“It feels as though a lot of the other groups on campus only reach out to us when they need something, meaning Black actors,” Tomlin said. “A group reached out about needing Black ensemble characters. That’s not our role. That’s not our job. We’re here to center Black voices, not to give you background actors who happen to be Black to make your play seem like you didn’t only … have white actors.”
Currently, the group is getting ready for its annual One-Act Showcase titled “Things I Imagined,” which will consist of three student-written plays that highlight Black-centered stories and discuss motifs of dreams and time. This year marks the first time that they will have an all-Black cast.
Despite being one of the smaller theater groups on campus, BTE is known for its dedication to creating an impact both in the theater sphere and in regard to diversity issues on campus. It hopes to expand in the next few years and share the space it has created with others.