Staging New Futures
Student ensembles do Broadway their own way.
By Muni Suleiman
I only learned of the Columbia University Black Theatre Ensemble in October, when it revealed its existence just to interrupt a quiet dinner with a friend. As an assistant director to their fall play Once on This Island, she had to cut our dinner date short to make rehearsal. So there I was on Low Steps, alone but with new knowledge. And as a Black student, it mostly left me perplexed—that such an organization existed at Columbia, but also that I’d been utterly unaware of this fact.
I wouldn’t hear much more of it until late January, when I spotted a call for writers posted in Lerner. The posters advertised weekly co-writing sessions for film and theater writers, workshops with film and theater professors, and a writers’ room—all part of the Ensemble’s IncluBIPOC workshop program, an environment of “positive creative growth, as we create a writers community here at Columbia.” With no demands for prior experience or skill, this was an open invitation not only into a world for Black writers but into the vibrant and supportive community that is BTE.
In recent years, there has been growing mobilization directed at Broadway’s lack of diversity. Though more Black actors have reached Broadway stages, those behind the scenes, including playwrights, also need diversified spaces. Plays and playwrights provide the voice through which acting is interpreted. If the narratives we place on the stage aren’t inhabiting diverse perspectives, we run the risk of undermining more visible efforts toward diversity.
Broadway flung open its curtains for the fall 2021 season to unveil seven plays by Black playwrights: Chicken & Biscuits, Pass Over, Trouble in Mind, Lackawanna Blues, Skeleton Crew, Clyde’s, and Thoughts of a Colored Man. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 brought public demands to diversify the theater industry, and the season promised a meaningful change from the relative lack of Black-written theater on Broadway in previous years. But two years later, the commitment hasn’t stuck—as of now, Skeleton Crew and for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf are the only Black-written plays still running. The explanation for each ending varies—financial backing and the impact of the Omicron variant have played major roles. Nevertheless, there remains a clear difference in the amount of real estate Black and white playwrights are allowed to occupy on the “Great White Way.”
For one, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over was the first play to open on Broadway since March 2020. After a pushed-up opening date, low ticket sales triggered industry voices, even before the first show, to question the play’s ability to survive its limited run. All major theatrical productions are financially risky endeavors; given the institutional and cultural barriers that can make Black-written plays seem like even greater risks, this pre-existing instability makes such shows even more difficult to produce.
As I read more and more into these stories of professional Black theater, I was particularly intrigued by how the conversations on Black playwrights and diversity on Broadway mirrored similar conversations that I also was hearing on Columbia’s campus.
Columbia’s connection to the professional theater world is twofold. On one hand, current members of Columbia theater spaces may become the famous actors, directors, and writers of tomorrow. On the other hand, the way that Broadway looks right now plays a major role in influencing the future of the theater community— inspiring those who see theater as a welcoming space while turning away those who do not. The theater industry’s racial and financial barriers, therefore, recreate themselves when there are no structural changes enacted to oppose them. While Columbia is an institution in which barriers to theater involvement are very much present, it is also a space for students to contest such barriers by encouraging broader participation in their theatrical groups.
Though optimistic about the accessibility of Columbia and Barnard’s Theater department, Kay Kemp, CC ’22, who helps lead BTE, noted the racial and financial pressures that potentially deter Black students, even those with high school experience, from engaging in Columbia student theater. “Theater is such a centralized, wealthy media,” they said, creating a need for an organization like BTE. “You cannot work in theater without a certain amount of exposure and backing.”
The same can be said of requirements upheld by clubs or productions prior to participation. When productions require prior experience, knowledge of the theatrical canon, or labor-heavy commitment, it can discourage those from marginalized backgrounds; such students are less likely to have had access to that prior experience, or may need to manage a job alongside academics and extracurriculars in order to support themselves.
Jane Walsh, CC ’23, has found similar issues in the audition process. She noted that, for hundreds of years, “theater has been, frankly, really not a diverse community just because of how it’s been structured with the casting, the audition process. You have to know certain people to get anywhere.”
Walsh is the co-president of Latenite Theatre, an experimental comedy theater group that produces an anthology of eight to nine student-written plays. Like BTE, it attempts to diversify its membership through a recruitment process that removes barriers to entry. The club maintains a casual audition process in which preparation is discouraged, bias training is done prior to casting, and production casts are large so as to include as many people as possible. “Shows are only better if you have a diverse range of playwrights, actors, directors,” emphasized Walsh. “[We] definitely try to do a lot of work toward it, but also I hope that we’ll never be complacent.”
Latenite and BTE share another rudimentary but essential practice: Both groups regularly put on student-written plays, rather than productions of canonical work. Walsh explained the significance of this long-standing practice: “I think sometimes so much of the theater world is so focused on redoing, that it’s so hard to break in anything you write to be seen anywhere.” Given the whiteness of the theatrical canon, frequent productions of student plays provide opportunities for budding writers of color to have their work performed, and for college theater spaces to diversify their material.
For Latenite and BTE, then, inclusivity is not limited to making participation more accessible, but also making all types of participation acceptable. Both clubs allow for first-time playwrights to write and produce their work without the pressures of being The Next Best American Play. One of Walsh’s favorite parts about Latenite plays, for instance, is that “there’s not a lot of emphasis on them being really good. The stuff we make is like stuff that’s just weird and halfway through.” Sometimes the plays don’t make any sense, and they don’t have to.
Kemp similarly emphasized BTE’s commitment to versatile productions, noting that they accept “people who are like, ‘I want to direct this thing.’ We’re just like, ‘Then direct it.’ Everything that we’ve done has been—this was a passion project from somebody. Was on the board or wasn’t on the board, it doesn’t matter. If you want to do theater, we’ll make it happen.”
While Latenite and BTE have made likewise efforts to make theater spaces more accessible, they’ve approached making them more diverse in different ways. They’ve created internal structures that differ not only from each other but also deviate from professional theater practices: At Latenite, that takes the form of color-evasive theatrical spaces, while BTE has created an identity-conscious space.
Typically used in reference to theatrical casting, as well as hiring practices at large, the term “color-evasive” refers to the disregard of one’s race, ethnicity, and/or gender, or not finding these identities relevant to a position if it does not explicitly call for specific identities. Latenite undergoes an anonymous submission process in which “everyone has the fair chance to have their play be selected,” and “people will discuss the plays for what they are,” as Leul Abate, CC ’23, Latenite’s co-submissions commission chair, described. Anonymity is maintained for as long as the writer wishes, at times even extending well into rehearsal, so qualifications like writing experience are not emphasized in the submission process.
For all it may do to reduce bias and requirements of experience, though, an anonymous and color-evasive process by definition cannot guarantee that a diverse array of playwrights are included in the anthology. Identity-consciousness, on the other hand, acknowledges and embraces that identities—including but not limited to race, ethnicity, and gender—can inform how a role or position is fulfilled. It goes beyond the concept that anyone can write a play and join their community, consciously recognizing and actively working against the barriers that specifically impact Black, Indigenous and Playwrights of Color. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, BTE wishes to develop as it dismantles: Another primary aim for the group is to further the theatrical artistry of its participants.
It was through BTE, for instance, that Kemp was able to turn their experience with whiteness in the theater world into a source of creative inspiration: “I acted, and then got to college and was like, ‘Oh, there's nothing on this campus that I want to be in. Because there's nothing on this campus for me.’ I went back to writing when I was like, ‘Well, nobody's going to make that but me. There's nobody on this campus who's making work like that right now.’”
The organization functions both as an artistic and a mentoring space, especially through projects like the IncluBIPOC workshop which—at the time of writing—remains open for any Black and other writers of color. It not only provides the resources for those who wish to develop their theatrical interests, but also establishes an identity-based community outside theater. Kemp described BTE not only as the Black Theater Ensemble but also as the Black Teaching Ensemble. “I feel like an important thing about [the IncluBIPOC workshop] is I am listed as the head writer, but that does not mean that I’m not learning,” they explained. “It actually means that I get the opportunity to learn more from these people who are new and have fresh voices and ideas. I'm not teaching anything. We’re all sitting around and teaching each other.” It’s these aspects of BTE’s environment that contribute to Kemp’s description of BTE as a community theater.
Formally, Kemp is BTE’s resident playwright, as well as one of its co-presidents, alongside Madison Hatchett, BC ’22, and Emily Ndiokho, BC ’22. In practice, the ensemble’s structure is much more decentralized, with the distribution of artistic work far more fluid than the rigid roles assigned on paper. Those who might otherwise feel unwelcome in theatrical spaces are thus offered an opportunity—not only for bit-part participation but for immediate immersion in the creative work of the ensemble. They might be experiencing, for the first time, that ideas outside of theatrical convention can be celebrated, as opposed to shunned.
“That’s extremely important—learning how to collaborate with people,” said Hatchett. “You don’t need to have experience ... You’ll learn just by the virtue of being in that space.”
Distinct from an approach that deemphasizes the quality of the plays to endorse creativity, BTE’s communal ethos and decentralized structure not only includes students without a traditional theater background, but also recognizes what they are capable of. Kemp summarized BTE’s messaging: “We’re making art like, ‘Hey, we think that stories are really valuable. We think that your story is really valuable, and we want to make it easy for you to tell that story. I want to give you tools. We don’t want to give you a framework, but we want to give you tools.’”
The depth of BTE’s communal support structure—artistic and otherwise—allows its members to produce something audiences might not see anywhere else on campus.
Even with the inclusive approaches of BTE and Latenite, there are still difficulties in trying to diversify theater on Columbia’s campus. For one, a strict timeline for auditions means that, even if one wanted to include as many people as possible in a production, there’s a limited time frame for recruitment. Moreover, there still remains larger institutional barriers within and beyond the university itself that these clubs cannot overcome themselves.
“We can’t change what’s going on at this university for people of color. We don’t have that capacity if we tried … we have to change the way that we’re making work to make it more accessible to those people,” Kemp reflected.
But BTE and Latenite are still valuable, serving as the campus conduits for stories. A “safe and restorative space,” as Hatchett described BTE, allows more people into the industry as well as the audience, whether theater is a long-term career aspiration or not.
“Just because some of us on this e-board want to pursue theater full time doesn’t mean that you have to take theater extremely seriously,” said Hatchett, in a reminder that these student ensembles value theater as process and not product. “You don’t have to be a theater person just to have people that you have fun with. That’s what rehearsal spaces are designed for.”