Letter to the Editor defends artistic choices in ‘Anon(ymous)’

Dress rehearsal of Anon(ymous) at Transylvania University Little Theatre, Lexington, Ky. Tuesday, Nov 1, 2016 Photo by Joseph Rey Au

Letter to the Editor

I would like to address this letter to the editor in response to writer Tristan Reynolds’ review of Transylvania’s production of Anon(ymous). I was cast in the production and I know that as a member of the cast I have a certain bias. However, I believe there are several problems mentioned in his review that need to be addressed. Although he doled out several compliments to the actors and production crew, it seemed that Reynolds had two major issues with the play. On the one hand, Reynolds was upset about the ways in which the playwright, Naomi Iizuka, adapted Homer’s Odyssey. He also was very concerned about the way the show was cast, specifically concerning race.

To address his first issue, my biggest argument would be that Anon(ymous) is not meant to be a retelling of a classic, but rather was a piece written about the struggles of worldwide refugees (not constrained to one time period) that sometimes alludes to Homer’s Odyssey. The Odyssey was indeed about a character that is “fantastically clever … alive and active, always firmly at the center of the narrative, constantly scheming and plotting and generally fascinating audiences” to use Reynolds’ words. Anon(ymous) is not, however, about Odysseus.

Odysseus was not a refugee, but rather a war hero traveling home after a long time on the battle front. Anon is a boy attempting to find his way home to his mother. Penny, or Nemasani as her name is listed in the script, does show similarities to Penelope but she is not the same character. Again, there are allusions to the Odyssey but the play is not based on the classic. This play was not written to be a modern version of the Odyssey but was merely inspired by the interesting travels of Odysseus. To be fair, I did not write the play nor have I met the playwright, but as someone who has read the play in its entirety and spent several weeks studying it, I believe I can help shed some light on the way the play was meant to be interpreted. In addition, Michael Dixon, director and esteemed theater professor at Transylvania knows the playwright personally so I hold his ideas in high regard – on this play especially. Reynolds did not contact either Dixon or Iizuka or any of the cast members for their opinions on the script, casting, or production. It is obvious that he did not do his research. His review was uninformed and uneducated.

The second problem Reynolds pointed out in his criticism is the “whitewashing” of the show. Originally, the term whitewashing referred to the way history can become biased based on the ones who are writing it. An example is the way Christopher Columbus is often known for discovering the Americas even though we now know that this is incorrect. Nevertheless, I can see what Reynolds means and where is coming from. The majority of the cast of Anon(ymous) is, in fact, white.

However, I would like to point out that this play was not specifically set in any country, nor were any characters’ backgrounds specified. Just as well, refugees in history have been a wide range of ethnicities including Irish, Russian, and German. Yes, there are characters whose lines hint at their intended ethnicity but to assume a character is “Bangladeshi” based on their names or the kind of food they serve at their restaurant is, frankly, racist. My name is traditionally Russian and even spelled as such. I am not of Russian decent but rather German and English. Based on Reynolds’ logic, I should be Russian. It is easy to assume the potentially intended heritage behind some of the characters but we all know what happens when you assume. The specific costume issue that Reynolds brings up of the black wigs that actors Haberlin Roberts and Mollie LaFavors was not a choice made in the costuming department – of which I am a part – to make the actors look more “ethnic” but was just an effort to make the actors appear like more of a family. (If you notice, the other actor’s hair is black). In addition, during chorus scenes, Director Dixon had actors behind the skrim – the black “screens” which Reynolds refers to – in order to make us “faceless.”

One of the most interesting things that I noticed about Reynolds review was that in neither his compliments nor criticisms he failed to actually mention a single member of the cast that is a person of color. Nikki Ramos and Christopher Perez are a few of the actors that played characters that could potentially be people of color. However, neither these actors, nor their portrayals of their characters were ever mentioned. Michael Dixon chose this play to tell the very important and relevant stories of refugees that have been displaced from their homes and their families. In fact, the theater department was approached by a small group on campus asking for more opportunities for people of color to play roles that were people of color. Interestingly enough, no one in that group auditioned for this show. Dixon felt that the show was too important to abandon. Anon’s story is one that literally millions of people have lived, searching for a home in an unknown place and holding on to the hope of reuniting with their long lost loved ones. Dixon was given a limited group of students to choose from in casting, but that is the beauty of Iizuka’s play: it is not about any one specific ethnicity or people, it is about anyone anywhere who has felt the pain, loss, and fear of being displaced.

It is my belief that Reynolds’ review of this production was ignorant, uneducated, and biased. He went into the play under the assumption that it would be a modern remake of the Odyssey and he was also – as a white man – distracted when characters with international names and international restaurants did not look “international.” I implore people to go and see or at least read the play themselves and perhaps even discuss the production with Michael Dixon before forming their own opinions.

Natassja Woodrum, junior