Richard Lee never intended to play the lead in “Anon(ymous).” The University of Washington Tacoma freshman heard about the new collaborative theater project between UWT and Tacoma’s Toy Boat Theatre, and signed up with his sister for production crew. But director Marilyn Bennett coaxed him to audition — and found her perfect actor for Anon, the hero of Naomi Iizuka’s 2006 play that retells Homer’s “Odyssey” as the journey of America’s immigrants. Opening this weekend, “Anon(ymous)” isn’t just a powerful piece of multicultural theater — it’s also, potentially, the start of a new model for Tacoma.
“The story itself is pretty compassionate,” said Lee, as the rest of the cast swooped through vocal warm-ups in the tiny Broadcast Theater off Pacific Avenue. “It really caught on with me, gave me an idea of who Anon is. He’s by himself a lot, and the more conflicts he faces, the more defensive he is of how his life has been.”
An American playwright whose works are often influenced by her multicultural upbringing — born in Toyko, she grew up in Japan, Indonesia, the Netherlands and the United States — Iizuka wrote “Anon(ymous)” to highlight the issues surrounding America’s immigrant experience: poverty, interculturalism, violence and the idea of home. The play transforms Homer’s “Odyssey” into the surreal journey of one young man newly arrived in America. We never find out his name, but we follow him through a myriad of places — a family restaurant, a beach, a seedy bar — and an assortment of people, all highly symbolic of the experiences of migrating, of not belonging, of searching for home. Those familiar with “The Odyssey” will recognize key characters; those who’ve never read it will relate to the sheer depth of Anon’s experiences and how he faces them.
The other big facet of Iizuka’s play is that it is intentionally ethnically diverse, without specifying which actors should be which ethnicity. Lee, from Federal Way, is of Chinese-Filipino heritage; Emily Cohen (a community actor who plays several roles and is the fight choreographer) comes from Hawaiian-Argentine-European stock. The rest of the cast is a mixture of African-American, Asian, Latino and European — a deliberate goal of Bennett, who sees the need for more diversity in Tacoma’s theater scene.
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“Theater can be tough,” agrees Cohen. “It’s easy to fall into the groove of working with people you’ve always worked with. Sometimes that includes diversity, sometimes it doesn’t. The challenge for directors is whether to cast the person who looks right versus the person who is true to the part. We’re getting better, but we have a long way to go.”
The project makes good use of the under-utilized Broadcast Theater at UWT: an intimate square room with exposed brick wall, set up as a black-box theater. Seating 40 around a thrust floor-stage, the theater makes the perfect venue for plays like this, in which props are minimal and the cast of 11 doubles and triples roles, floating like memories around Anon. As the cast rehearses a tense scene where Anon unwittingly crashes a truck full of refugees, Bennett is encouraging but firm, emphasizing volume and constantly cementing line-learning.
“Anon(ymous)” is just the start of what organizers hope will be an ongoing model for theater in Tacoma. The project is supported both by the department of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UWT and the Tacoma Arts Commission, with a small contribution from Toy Boat Theatre and in-kind support from UWT’s Student Theatre Acting Guild. Jointly overseen by UWT advisor Michael Kula and Toy Boat director Marilyn Bennett, it draws on connections from both the community theater scene and the university, allowing seasoned actors to work alongside and help students as they learn. “The hardest part was getting people to audition, to know what was expected,” says Bennett. “(But) while the company is very green, they have bought into this structure and have formed this incredible union. They’re so willing, and so engaged.”