Black Anthology tackles relationship violence, cultural appropriation in powerful performance
1:05 is a time, but it’s also a ratio: Approximately one in five black women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. This powerful statistic inspired the title of this year’s iteration of Black Anthology (BA), “1:05,” which centered on themes of sexual assault and relationship violence.
The cryptic stylization of the show’s title was inspired by Jay-Z’s 2017 album 4:44. Initially, the time 1:05 was going to be woven into the plot of the play, but it didn’t end up in the final version. Nevertheless, this ambiguity helped keep the topic of the show—which is typically not revealed until its premiere—under wraps.
Black Anthology is a student-run cultural performance, now in its 29th year, that focuses on a different theme in each iteration. In recent years, the show has blended a full-length stage play with thematically related dances. According to director junior Ebby Offord, “The main thread is blackness, and I think every show is a different take on issues that affect it and different aspects of black identity.”
This year’s show supported the Friends of Kathy J. Weinman Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence, Inc. Each year, the philanthropic cause that Black Anthology supports is tied to the show’s theme; so, it was fitting that this year, the organization chose to highlight a crucial support system for St. Louis women who have experienced assault and domestic abuse.
In addition to “1:05,” Offord, a junior, also directed last year’s installment of Black Anthology, “Black and Blue.” She returned to direct for the second year in a row because she wanted to continue her involvement with important platform, elevating black students’ voices and perspectives.
“BA gives an opportunity for students to talk about what they want to talk about,” Offord said.
This year, the Black Anthology executive board decided to focus on relationship violence, an issue that disproportionately affects black women.
“We definitely wanted to address the issue that a lot of people think that sexual assault cannot happen in relationships…Especially with black women who are assaulted, it is usually by someone that they know and someone that they trust. So, we didn’t just want it to be another story that could just be brushed aside,” Offord explained.
The theatrical portion of the show, which was also interspersed with several moving dance performances, centered its plot on a couple played by freshman Anna Rittenhouse and sophomore JT Bridges. Rittenhouse delivered an incredibly powerful performance as her character Raven faced an increasingly abusive partner in Bridges’ character Sean, culminating in a violent assault near the end of the second act that left Raven’s ultimate fate unclear.
Many audience members expressed desire for more closure, myself included: The contrast between the intensity and uncertainty of the final scene, and the joyful dancers and actors taking their bows just seconds later, was jarring. But the disconcerting nature of the finale served a purpose—sexual assault and relationship violence are topics that shouldn’t leave audiences feeling entirely comfortable.
On the unresolved ending of the show, “We didn’t want a super-happy, neatly resolved ending because real life doesn’t happen that way,” Offord commented. “The way that I like to think about [plays] is that they keep going, even after the last sentence…This is still somebody’s real life; so, we wanted to get as close to that as possible.”
During Friday’s performance of “1:05,” several audience members were upset that the announcement relayed before the show did not adequately address the themes of sexual violence. As a result, the message was amended for Saturday’s performance, including phone numbers for the Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Hotline (S.A.R.A.H.) and Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling, as well as other resources.
“They did an excellent job of depicting sexual and relationship violence…It’s an issue that is so prevalent, and one that we don’t talk enough about. So, I appreciated that they were willing to delve into such a difficult topic,” said Kim Webb, director of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center. “It’s always important, when you have that type of content, to give a trigger warning to the audience and make sure that they have resources available.”
After the issue was brought to the attention of Black Anthology, Offord consulted Webb to amend the announcement between the two performances.
“We tried to give a warning that we thought would kind of encompass everything, which is why we said ‘interpersonal violence’ without getting too explicit,” said Offord of Friday’s message.
“And when some people told us that it wasn’t, then we asked Kim Webb what she thought would be best, along with some other mental health professionals who were in the audience. They told us to actually state the resources that were available and to say that people were there to talk.”
In addition to Raven and Sean’s troubling relationship, the show also depicts the couple’s friends as they struggle with witnessing the escalation of the abuse. Along with providing moral support and some much-appreciated comic relief as a brief respite from the show’s darker scenes, Raven’s friends address the secondary theme of “1:05”: cultural appropriation.
Raven’s friends Mercedes, Janet and Amir—played by senior Kiara Sample, junior Jessy Martinez and sophomore Brandon Hampton, respectively—interact throughout the show with an acquaintance espousing views that evolve from “colorblindness” to performative allyship to blatant cultural appropriation. This character, Lauren, was originally written as a white woman. After no white women auditioned for Black Anthology, sophomore Han Ju Seo stepped up to portray her in the show.
Offord feels that the choice to reframe Lauren as a non-black woman of color ultimately strengthened the plot; indeed, it offered considerable nuance to a character who might have been more predictable, if still painfully recognizable, as a white woman.
“We thought it would create a better dialogue, because we don’t really talk a lot about people of color appropriating other cultures,” Offord said, “[but] it does happen.”
At one point, this theme manifests in a manner that’s specific to Washington University: a plot point in “1:05” directly references an instance of blackface that paralleled an incident at Wash. U. in fall 2016.
Offord explained that the show focused on this incident because it personally impacted many members of the Black Anthology executive board, and they wanted to continue an important conversation that seemed to die down after the initial burst of outrage. “We wanted to go about it in a way that could help people see where we were coming from because there was a lot of people not understand why people were upset,” Offord said.
This episode of cultural appropriation was not the only direct parallel to Washington University.
“We tried to mention a few things that directly happened on campus. Even though BA is sometimes set at other universities, it’s supposed to talk about life at Wash. U., and Wash. U. students,” Offord said.
Other notable references included the fictional restaurant “Ebby’s” as a stand-in for Ibby’s, and the character Mrs. Roosevelt, representing the University’s Title IX Director Jessica Kennedy.
In the second act of “1:05,” an especially affecting scene was the conversation between Raven and Ms. Roosevelt, played by sophomore Alexa Rodriguez Pagano. During Saturday’s performance, the audience reacted, audibly and angrily, as Raven attempted to report her rape to the Title IX Office and Mrs. Roosevelt coldly dismissed her.
Offord explained that Mrs. Roosevelt was a direct reference to Kennedy, basing some of the scene’s elements on personal experiences of students who have gone through the Title IX reporting process.
“We really were just upset with how sexual assault cases are being handled on this campus, and we know that BA is a huge platform; so, we wanted to use it to address student frustrations,” said Offord.
Kennedy herself agreed that the Mrs. Roosevelt character was unsympathetic, but felt that it wasn’t an accurate representation of the Title IX director position.
“I don’t know whether [Mrs. Roosevelt] was intended to be me or not, but the way that character interacted with the main character in the play is not the way that I have ever interacted with a student at the University. And I understood why the audience reacted the way it did,” said Kennedy. “I don’t recognize myself in that character. I certainly understand that not everyone who interacts with me would agree with that.”
Webb, whose role in the RSVP Center is adjacent to, but separate from the Title IX Office, emphasized the work that still needs to be done on the part of herself and the University after viewing the show’s depiction of the Title IX reporting process.
“I thought it was powerful and disturbing, and we need to listen—if those are the experiences and the perceptions of students, then we need to continue to listen and to improve in that area,” said Webb.
“A piece of work I need to do is to make sure students understand that they have two different avenues to report…If they come through RSVP, it’s all confidential, they don’t have to report; or they can choose to go through the Title IX Office and make a report, but those are two very separate avenues to get support,” Webb continued. “I felt like in the play, there was the potential for those to be conflated, that people might have thought they were one and the same.”
On her part, Offord understands that the reporting process depicted in “1:05” might dissuade some students from using the Title IX Office.
“I think that is something that we were all afraid of, but I also think it was a conversation that needed to be had,” said Offord. “Hopefully, this inspired people to turn to other resources that are helpful, like S.A.R.A.H. the RSVP Center and Uncle Joe’s.”
Even more central to the show’s message was that friends and bystanders must act when they witness something concerning.
“It’s not always up to the survivor to come forward; bystanders have to be active and vigilant in doing the right thing…We have to be willing to listen to people when they may or may not be directly telling us that they need help,” Offord emphasized.
In the play, Raven’s friends expressed concern about her relationship, but ultimately didn’t act until late in the second act. Sean’s friends even witnessed an instance of abuse, and while they admonished Sean, they also didn’t report the incident until it escalated to a literal life-or-death situation.
“I really hope that the audience not only understood the prevalence of violence and what it looks like, [but also] the ways they can intervene and stand up,” Webb said. “I also hope it continues the dialogue. Particularly the performance talked a lot about marginalized communities and the oppression they experience. I think we as a community need to actively address the marginalization and oppression…and to remove gaps and barriers to services, and even to the conversation.”
In light of recent months’ reckoning with sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo movement—and, even closer to home, the issues that have been highlighted with Washington University’s sexual assault reporting process—the message of “1:05” is powerful and pertinent. Time is up for survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence, and those survivors are disproportionately black women, as this year’s performance of Black Anthology critically impressed.
If we want the clock to read a less disturbing number by next year, the time to act is now.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with an incidence of sexual assault or interpersonal violence, please reach out to the following resources:
Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Hotline (S.A.R.A.H.): 314-935-8080
Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling: 314-935-5099
Kim Webb, Director of the RSVP Center: 314-935-8761
Student Health Services: 314-935-6666