Black Anthology preview: Staying ‘woke’
Black Anthology, Washington University’s oldest student-run cultural show, returns this weekend with “woke.” I sat down with senior Schuyler Atkins, the show’s director, and freshman Chris Gauss, an actor in the performance. Here’s what I learned:
What is Black Anthology?
Like other cultural shows, including Diwali and Carnaval, the purpose of Black Anthology is to showcase the lives of black students at Wash. U., as well as those of other St. Louis community members. It serves to bring relevant issues to light and contains three dances, but the skits take center stage, more so than in other cultural productions. Instead of skits simply filling the spaces between different dance demonstrations, the dances are interpretive and are part of the story.
What sets ‘woke’ apart from previous Black Anthology performances?
With new writers every year, each Black Anthology is unique. Atkins explained that this performance builds on last year’s, which was profoundly affected by the murder of Michael Brown. Because similar violence is still occurring, this year’s show is dealing with the aftermath rather than the event itself.
“Now we’ve had time to soak it in and to really react to it. Last year, the media was very fresh in the minds of those who wrote it,” said Gauss. The time factor is the biggest difference; since Michael Brown’s murder there have also been the tragic killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many others.
What is the meaning behind the title ‘woke’?
“Now that everything is so televised, Ferguson woke us up,” said Atkins. The title functions well because people know what “woke” means; the purpose of last year’s show was to make people “woke,” and this year’s focus is on what to do when you are “woke.”
“Now, people are ‘woke’ while they still want to be happy and vibrant,” said Atkins. “We had the play before we had the title…someone suggested ‘woke’ and it was perfect, it clicked,” she said.
“The key is staying ‘woke’…people woke up and there were the immediate reactions,” said Gauss.
But after those reactions, some people dropped off, and the ‘woke’ people stayed. How do people continue to do what they need to do in their lives while constantly being aware of these prevalent issues? How do they balance school and life with a desire to create social change and do something about this state of crisis in America? Although the tradition for the show is to keep the plot secret, Atkins and Gauss say that it focuses on the difficulty of maintaining this balance.
What are you hoping the campus community will gain through ‘woke’?
“What we always hope with Black Anthology and with art in general is that it gets people thinking and asking questions, too,” said Atkins. “I hope that people realize that there are students on campus for whom this is always on their minds…which makes it hard to do other things.”
She also loves that every year there’s a production that’s about the black students on campus and black people in the St. Louis community. Unfortunately, the show is unique in this regard. Black Anthology offers an opportunity to see stories based off of the local population without the biased angle of the news.
Due to the fact that Black Anthology’s faculty advisor, Assistant Dean of Arts & Sciences Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, and many members of the show’s executive board are from the St. Louis area, many local St. Louisans come to see the show.
And “it’s not just for the black community. In this year’s show especially, there is an element of the show that non-black people can relate to,” said Gauss. “Everyone needs to care about it.” People are aware that this stuff is happening, they say, but this show provides a reminder.
While this freshman class is the most diverse in the history of Wash. U., with nine percent black students, it also reflects how hard it is to be a black student at Wash. U. or at any other college in America. The Black Anthology team wants people to be attentive and to come to the show with an open mind.
“There could be parts that people don’t agree with or that make people uncomfortable,” said Atkins. But the message they are putting out there is that this could happen to your friend, your classmate or yourself. According to Gauss, the purpose of this year’s Black Anthology is to “bring some fire back into someone’s heart.”
Black Anthology is this Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Edison Theatre. Buy tickets at the Edison box office or online.