Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Tackling the Mosaic Project in a milestone performance, Black Anthology celebrates its 25th anniversary

Michael Tabb | Student Life

Students perform in “Post-,“ the 25th-anniversary Black Anthology in Edison Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 8. The play focused on a group of black students coming to learn the history of black marginalization at Washington University, and discovering prevailing racial inequality in the process.

A black-and-white image of Brookings Hall projected behind them, five students—three carrying picket signs reading “Integrate,” “Separate ≠” and “Equality Now” and two singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round”—demanded an end to pervasive marginalization of Washington University’s black community.

Imitating a 1949 protest of Student Committee for Admission of Negroes, the students expressed hope for a more inclusive University, regardless of how long it might take.

The image echoed the cryptic poster promoting “Post-,” the just-as-cryptic title of Black Anthology’s 25th anniversary performance, which highlighted the University’s continued failure to make diversity a legitimate institutional priority and the distance to travel moving forward.

“We know that gaining the right for black students to walk through the door is just the first step,” one student protester stated. “We know that desegregating Washington University is just the beginning of a long fight.”

If the play had a single message, it would be that the fight isn’t over, and that answers are in short supply, a message that the show’s director, junior Chelsea Whitaker, intended.

“I just really wanted to make this about the student experience at Wash. U. and not provide answers but more get the audience to question their everyday reality based on someone else’s,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker explained that this year’s show was intended to be more student-centered.

“This year, we were just really trying to capture the student perspective at Wash. U. because we feel like that’s been lacking,” Whitaker added. “I really wanted to push the envelope this year, knowing that the chancellor might see it.”

In the show’s 25th year, the performance that began as a fairly straightforward effort to bring black history and culture closer to the Washington University student body hosted guests ranging from Chancellor Mark Wrighton and Provost Holden Thorp to the show’s original creator, Marcia Hayes-Harris.

Unabashedly self-aware and self-referential, the performance offered a nearly filled Edison Theatre a mix of narrative, montage and dance that never let its elements fully coalesce but formed a powerful call for continued conversation surrounding diversity on campus.

The play centers on the story of a freshman named Jackson (sophomore Jonathan Williford) who steals the Writing 1 essay topic of his classmate, Jasmine (senior Ahki Wanliss), before developing feelings for her. Meanwhile, she is angry that he doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the meaning of the topic—tracing the way Washington University has treated black students.

“Do you want to know about the growth of black culture at Wash. U.?” Jasmine seethes to Jackson, “I’ll tell you about the growth of black culture at Wash. U. We’re a fringe population.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means Wash. U. keeps us around for the admissions brochure photo ops so it can tell a bunch of bougie white kids that they go to a diverse school.”

“That’s not true.”

“But it feels like it sometimes.”

The title of the play—“Post-”—is a question, and the play itself is a scramble to figure out what exactly comes next for a university that has struggled with race since its founding.

The skit chronicled the University’s history with race from past injustice, ranging from the University deciding to not admit black students in 1892 all the way up to the 21st century, with the alleged discrimination at The Original Mother’s Bar on the class of 2010 senior trip and the incident involving a racial slur in Bear’s Den last spring.

The skit also highlighted certain issues black students at the University struggle with, such as the fact that black students who audition for Performing Arts Department plays often feel passed over for lead roles because of their skin color.

Though the show aimed to inject a message into the ongoing campus discussion about diversity and inclusion, its final message seemed to be merely that these conversations needed to continue. As the narrative moves to the characters themselves deciding to audition for the cultural production, it finishes with not-so-subtle meta-drama with the line, “Let’s talk about this year’s Black Anthology.”

As controversial as the play’s subject matter may have been, senior Joshua Aiken, who co-wrote this year’s play with junior John Schmidt, said the current campus climate allowed them to press further than they ever have in the past.

“It’s not as if this stuff hasn’t been happening for a really long time, but we think we’re in a place where the University is more ready to talk about it,” Aiken said. “So I think we knew that this year we had a special opportunity.”

While the central narrative took place at the University today, a substantial portion was set in 1989, surrounding the creation of Black Anthology, itself marked by controversy.

The first production was almost booted out of Edison Theatre because of the commotion surrounding it, Hayes-Harris said, until the director of Residential Life bought a large block of tickets for the freshman class.

Carlos Sneed, an actor in the first production, returned for the 25th anniversary production. He sat in the middle section at Saturday’s show next to Hayes-Harris, who founded Black Anthology and returns every year to see the evolution of her creation.

“It was actually something I dreamt, and it just wouldn’t leave me alone,” Hayes-Harris said.

Some students noted that it was the best show they’ve seen at the University. Many in attendance said it was significantly more plot-driven than last week’s Lunar New Year Festival, which features substantially more dancing and gives less time for the skit.

“It was really good; I’m still processing it,” junior James Baek, who had never been to a Black Anthology production before, said.

“I thought it was very tastefully done,” junior Tony Xu added. “All the anecdotes they told, it was very relatable and understandable.”

Beyond its entertainment value, the realism of the performance was not missed on the audience.

“It’s clear that there is room for improvement [in terms of diversity on campus],” Wrighton noted. “Black Anthology started with an idea…and it reveals what you can do bringing people together.”

“It would be nice just to be able to talk to everybody right after this,” Risa Zwerling, Wrighton’s wife, added. “You feel what resonates with the audience, and then you want to understand it more.”

Editor’s note: John Schmidt is a managing editor for Student Life.

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  • Marcia Hayes-Harris says:

    Thank you to the students that continue to give voice to this project. This year’s performance not only gave voice, it inspired discussion and conversation. I was very proud…..Marcia Hayes-Harris

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  • Anonymous says:

    Every single person involved in that show should be proud. It was a beautiful production!

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878