From performing Shakespeare to musical roles to an internship at the Apollo, Bintu Conteh CC ’14 has turned her time at the College into a training in all things theater.
Most influential, however, has been her experience with the student group Black Theatre Ensemble, which began with a lead role in spring 2011 as part of BTE’s annual festival of one-act plays. The show, Prophet’s Wife, was a drama by Harrison David Rivers AR ’09 about a woman married to a man without genitalia. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, others think I have the potential to carry a show.’ That was really exciting for me,” says Conteh, who had an ensemble role in the Kings Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s presentation of The Taming of the Shrew that same semester.
She adds, “[Prophet’s Wife] was really hard work because it was such a strange play. A lot of work went into connecting to the character, but I was thankful to be part of that show … It was the first moment at Columbia where I realized, ‘I think I can do this.’”
Conteh has since worn multiple hats with BTE, which showcases playwrights and actors of color. She was stage manager for its fall 2012 production of Funnyhouse of a Negro, a 1964 one-act play by Adrienne Kennedy, and directed the group’s spring 2013 staging of ’Til Death by Nailah Robinson CC ’13. Last fall, as BTE president and producer for Eisa Davis’ Pulitzer-nominated play Bulrusher, Conteh managed the show’s budget and secured space for rehearsals.
Bulrusher explores themes of race, sexuality and gender — the same topics that prompted Conteh to major in American studies. “I love that I get to incorporate what I’m learning in my classes into the kind of theater I am interested in,” says Conteh, who cites two Barnard courses, “Black Women in America” and “Explorations in Black Theater,” among those she has found most relevant.
Conteh, whose parents hail from Sierra Leone, attributes her initial interest in performance to a casual remark by a family friend. “I was doing an imitation of my mom, with her accent and all, and my mom’s best friend said, ‘[Bintu] is such a character.’ And I thought, ‘You know what, yes,’” recalls Conteh, who grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., and was around 10 at the time. “Since then, it’s been something I’ve wanted to do.”
Beyond BTE, Conteh has played a disciple in the student troupe NOMADS’ spring 2012 production of Patrick Blute CC ’12’s SPEARS: The Gospel According to Britney, which narrates the life of Jesus through Britney Spears songs, and portrayed Chuck Bean in the Columbia Musical Theater Society’s presentation of Bright Lights, Big City by Paul Scott Goodman. She says she particularly enjoyed her contrasting roles in the Barnard Theater Department’s spring 2013 production of Eye Piece. The non-linear play by Barnard lecturer Rinde Eckert explores themes of sight and blindness. One of Conteh’s characters, an elderly blind woman reading a magazine, provided comic relief; her other part was a personification of death.
Conteh was further exposed to the African-American performing arts tradition at the Apollo Theater, where she procured a spring 2013 internship in the programming department through Columbia Arts Experience. The program, co-sponsored by the Center for Career Education and the Arts Initiative at Columbia University, offers art-related internships in New York City and provides support in the form of a stipend and career counseling. Conteh provided administrative support and contributed to the Apollo Archive Project, which involved organizing more than 2,000 colorized images of musicians who headlined the legendary venue.
She continued to intern at the Apollo during summer 2013, when she helped plan and orchestrate the first Breakin’ Convention, a hip-hop dance festival that featured acts from around the world. William Furio, an associate in the Apollo’s programming department, says the event showcased Conteh’s energy and people skills. “She was there to coordinate the back and forth — calling restaurants, getting flowers, all while going up and down the stairs a million times,” he says. “She was just so excited about everything.”
As a result of her diverse experiences with BTE and the Apollo, Conteh is pondering a career as a theater producer. “I began to realize that I like all the aspects of theater, whether it is being on stage or backstage,” she says.
Though she always planned to be involved in undergraduate theater, it was the Core that drew Conteh to the College. “I loved that I would take a science class, an art history class and a music class,” says Conteh, who as a campus tour guide shares her enthusiasm for the Core with prospective students. “Something I like to say on my tours is that I want to be a genius. I want to know everything, and the Core is helping me with that endeavor.”
Nathalie Alonso CC ’08, from Queens, is a freelance journalist and an editorial producer for LasMayores.com, Major League Baseball’s official Spanish language website.
This article originally appeared in Columbia College Today.