On Friday, February 3, Events Editor Ava Slocum attended the opening of Columbia’s Black Theatre Ensemble’s staged reading of A Raisin in the Sun, running through February 5 in the Lerner Black Box.

Among student theater groups here at Columbia, the Black Theatre Ensemble is unique for its special focus on representation and its goal to “create a diverse environment for theater [at Columbia and Barnard], providing Black playwrights, designers & actors an outlet for expression,” according to the group’s Instagram. This weekend, BTE accomplishes just that with its wonderful staged reading of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play about a Black family in 1950s Chicago as they face prejudice and housing discrimination when matriarch Lena Younger buys a house in an all-white neighborhood.

There were many standout performances from BTE’s seven-person cast, especially that of Merritt Johnson (MS in School of Professional Studies), who played the part of “Mama Lena” with eloquence and determination befitting her character, who uses a $10,000 life insurance check after her husband’s death to buy a home that she believes will help her family build a better life. Meanwhile, Skylar Hudson (CC ’25) balanced humor and emotional earnestness in her role as Beneatha Younger, Lena’s 20-year-old daughter who rejects her mother’s religious beliefs while dreaming of going to medical school. Isaiah Crawford (CC ‘24) was hilarious in his double performance as Beneatha’s two love interests: the wealthy, pompous George Murchinson and Nigerian Yoruba international student Joseph Asagai. Nkozi Jones (CC ’24) and Ava Henderson played off of each other fantastically as Lena’s son Walter, unsatisfied with his life as a financially struggling limousine driver, and his wife Ruth, who is eager to move into a new home.

Altogether, the actors had great chemistry as they portrayed a family who sometimes argues but cares deeply for one another and will do anything to support each other at the end of the day. After the play ended with the Younger family’s determined choice to move into their new neighborhood of Clybourne Park and rejection of the racist Neighborhood Welcoming Committee’s attempt to buy their house back from them to keep Clybourne Park white, the small but enthusiastic audience greeted the cast with clamoring applause. 

BTE’s production was billed as a “staged reading,” and all the actors had scripts in their hands. However, the carefully put-together set and sound cues, as well as the fact that most the actors rarely if ever even looked at their scripts, made the play into a show with high production quality and a real labor of love even with its relatively low budget. Set designer Makayla Bell’s carefully chosen props and furniture pieces turned the Lerner Black Box into a small 1950s apartment with couches, decorations, and a kitchen table. Meanwhile, sound engineer Madison Garrett (CC ’26) incorporated ’50s radio music and more into a soundtrack that made the set and costume designer Khadijah Ceesay’s costumes come to life as the world that Hansberry describes.

The reading ended with the actors reciting Langston Hughes’s short poem “Harlem” from which A Raisin in the Sun takes its name: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?… Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” For the Younger family, at least, the dream to move into a new home is deferred no longer, thanks to Hansberry’s sobering but ultimately uplifting script and BTE’s lovely rendition of it.

BTE’s staged reading of A Raisin in the Sun runs for two more performances: tonight, February 4, at 8 pm, and February 5 at 8 pm. Tickets are $5.50 with a CUID ($10.50 without) and available online.

Actors via Ava Slocum