John Schmidt, a senior in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is the white playwright behind Black Anthology. In past productions, Schmidt has tackled profiling, post-racial politics, bias within the black community and the insidious ways prejudice persists on college campuses. For this year’s anthology, the 26th edition of the annual cultural showcase, Schmidt and co-playwright Andie Berry, a sophomore in Arts & Sciences, responded to the events in Ferguson with a production called “The Six.”
“John can’t know what it’s like to be a person of color; he’s honest about that,” said Lemoine Joseph, producer of Black Anthology and a junior in Arts & Sciences. “But he does a great job because he is a great listener.
“Whenever you talk to John, there is always a pause after you say something,” Joseph said. “That’s because he’s processing your words. His ability to hear others makes him a great writer, a great RA and, really, a great person. Imagine if more of us could do that.”
Joseph recalled the first time he saw Schmidt two years ago during the Black Anthology curtain call. Joseph was a performer; Schmidt was the writer.
“I was expecting a black dude, and here is this white guy in glasses,” Joseph said. “I was totally surprised. But he doesn’t surprise me anymore. He always does a great job, and this year’s Black Anthology proves it.”
It’s not always easy. This year, he and Berry had to write an entirely new script last August, after the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. Schmidt called the experience “eye-opening.”
“It reinforced my awareness of the narratives society constructs because they are the easiest,” Schmidt said. “People need to listen to others to have a functioning society and that means listening to all people. I always approach Black Anthology and other projects with a listening ear, because I am not an expert. I see myself as more of a tool – I know how to write plays and they have a message. How can I help get that message across?”
The title refers to the 6 percent of the Washington University student body that identifies as black.
“The script addresses how we in St. Louis have had our lives rocked,” Schmidt said. “You have this expectation that the plot will go one way, but it goes a completely different way, just like our lives went a completely different way following the events of Ferguson.”
Schmidt concedes he was nervous to apply to Black Anthology as a freshman. He grew up near the Smoky Mountains in Maryville, Tennessee, where less than 3 percent of the population is black. But he came to St. Louis determined to grow as a writer, and Black Anthology seemed like a great opportunity.
Schmidt had already joined the staff of Student Life, where he serves this year as managing editor, and would later join Lunar New Year as a skit writer and director. This year, he directed a piece about a Hmong student whose mother faces deportation. Last year, drawing from the experiences of his two younger sisters who are adopted from China, he wrote about an adopted student struggling to reconcile her various identities.
“Expressing the experience of these groups without having the identities they represent inherently puts me out of my comfort zone,” Schmidt said. “But that is a good place to be because that’s where you learn. It makes me a stronger ally and a better writer.”
Next up, Schmidt will see his play “A Little Splash of Brandy” produced at Briefs: A Festival of Short LGBT Plays.
The play is the first winner of the Ken Haller Playwriting Competition for LGBTQ and Allied Youth. The annual festival runs March 27-29 at Centene Center for Arts and Education in St. Louis’ Grand Center.
Schmidt hopes his stories and characters open his audience to new ideas and perspectives. They certainly do that for him.
“One of the reasons I write is to know how I feel,” Schmidt said. “So often I feel like I’m not aware how I feel about something until my characters start speaking, and I start to realize a truth for me.
“That’s been such a great experience.”