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Black Anthology: The good, the bad, and the unfortunate

| Contributing Writer

I sat in the theater feeling like the odd one out in the packed house of 2024 Black Anthology-goers there to see “Pressed.” In all honesty, I wasn’t there because Black Anthology held some special place in my heart, I was there because I loved theater and all the facets of artistic expression that it allows. 

So I sat there skeptical, quietly wondering how a two-hour performance would manage to provide a nuanced representation of the issues that matter most to WashU’s Black community. Even more pressing to me, however, was whether or not they would do so while providing a quality theater-going experience. 

The energy in the room varied as some met up with friends to enjoy the yearly treat, while others flitted through the pages of their program absentmindedly. It seemed that excited anticipation was the prevailing sentiment. Together, we would soon be enthralled in a tale that pondered what it meant to trade the youthful exuberance of the promising ingénue for the stress, upsets, and nuisance of a hostile work environment. 

In short, we would learn what it meant to be “pressed.”

 The narrative follows Nadia Baptiste, our wide-eyed protagonist, as she begins her dream job of working for a prominent magazine “Haute Mirage.” As the story goes, Nadia’s experience at work is complicated from the very beginning as she experiences microaggressions from her white boss Alison and the veil of “inclusivity in media” gets thinner and thinner the more time she spends there. 

Dancers from the 2024 Black Anthology Production used lighting as an element in their performance (Sam Powers | Student Life)

She quickly makes an ally of her coworker Elijah, and this relationship grows in significance through their mutual understanding of what it is like to be Black while working for the faux woke magazine. 

At home, Nadia feels further alienated by her mother, a prototypical example of the immigrant gone native, proud of the work that she has done to assimilate into her chosen work environment. This trope involves the foreigner eliminating anything that may signify that they are different, including speech, clothing, and oftentimes their own core beliefs. 

Nadia meanders her way through these minefields with a kicked-puppy mentality that leaves her stuck for much of the story as she struggles to come to terms with the reality of living out her dreams. We watch as she fights against this reality by taking back her identity through expressive and stylish clothing and hairstyles. 

This is met to the surprise of some viewers, but the symptoms of anti-Black racism are then exacerbated by the antagonism of her boss’s superior, Jeanine, who just so happens to be Black herself. Nadia finds even more conflict in standing up for herself and exposing her mistreatment at “Haute Mirage” to the public. In the end, she finds that standing up for herself is worth the trouble of making herself subject to public ridicule, and we are left with a wiser protagonist who no longer suits the title of ingénue.

The realities of a two-hour presentation being as limiting as they are, it’s no wonder that elements of nuance and diverse Black perspectives were omitted. It would have been nice to get a peek inside of Jeanine’s head to discover exactly how her gears aligned. Instead, without any opportunity for understanding, we are left with the image of a traitor within our midst. Nonetheless, the daunting challenge of encapsulating the breadth of the Black experience in a single showing is one this performance aims to overcome. 

This task is aided through song choices that ranged anywhere from the rhythm and blues sounds of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” all the way to the rap stylings of Cardi B’s “Press,” showcasing the expanse of Black talent that many of us enjoy in the media. Student talent was showcased in everything from the dances to the stage handling by the backstage crew. 

The more I watched, the more it became clear that the whole experience was an exercise in how members of the Black community can make and claim space to show what the Black experience means to them.  

However, this attempt was not without some weaknesses. Audience members were subject to audio design that bordered on criminally loud at times and costuming that was occasionally ill-fitting for the stage. Not to mention acting that had its rough patches: from line delivery by way of yelling, to emotional soliloquies that were delivered with statuesque rigidity.  

The show interwove dance acts between scenes of a play (Sam Powers | Student Life)

While watching set pieces obstruct our protagonist’s ability to sit in a chair can be seen as simply an unfortunate accident, the very real probability that it is symptomatic of a lack of attention to detail seems troubling. It seems to bring to mind a question of what expectations viewers should have. Are we there to see a performance that emphasizes quality as well as substance?

Although there was a lot of good to dig into while watching — jokes that landed into receptive pools of laughter and acting performances that were memorable in all of the right ways — the technical details of stage performance seem to be the biggest stumbling block, leading me to wonder if Black Anthology was more about supporting the artists than the art itself.

 

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