Stout’s modern adaptation of The Odyssey stages quest for ethnic identity
Being an outsider is never easy. Whether it’s trying to make friends on the first day of school or hoping to impress everyone on your new baseball team, the fear of being rejected or not fitting in can be overwhelming. UW-Stout’s production of Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous) will look into those themes, as well as the journey of growing up. Based upon Homer’s The Odyssey, the play focuses on the main character Anon trying to find his mother, and in doing so, finding home.
“He’s (Anon) on a journey of self-discovery,” said UW-Stout director of theater Paul Calenberg, “What is home? What is ethnicity? What is your ethnic identity in a new world?” When looking for plays for the season, Calenberg was directed to this piece by UW-Eau Claire theater professor Cheryl Starr. “It interested me from just the description,” he said.
Playwright Naomi Iizuka was born to an American Latina and a Japanese banker. She was raised in Tokyo, Indonesia, Holland, and even Washington, D.C., giving her the perfect background to explore the world of an ethnic and social outsider. It seemed to be her intent to generalize the experiences of the play by having Anon come from a vague “Southeast Asia-ish,” war-torn country. Generalization is common in a lot of theater – such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – to ensure the audience can empathize with the characters and their situation. director Paul Calenberg took a different approach.
“We’re setting it in the Hmong culture,” Calenberg said. “They’re an integral part of the community, and we have a large number of Hmong students.” By choosing a specific country not named in the play – in this case, Laos – Calenberg said they hope to inform the region of the struggles that existed for many in the Hmong community. He also says they are working on having a Regional Honors Society speak about the Hmong community after the shows.
Maxwell Thao plays Anon, bringing his own experiences from growing up Hmong. “I brought my own ideas and my own things to the role, like clothing, language and a more focused Hmong perspective. ... It really means something when it’s your culture.”
Scenes in Anon(ymous) do include direct references to The Odyssey – a butcher wearing an eye patch stands in for a man-eating Cyclops – but with the cultural focus being the show’s goal for the play, it wasn’t as emphasized. “We wanted this to be very theatrical,” said Calenberg. “We needed to be able to adjust for the flow of the show and not get stuck with a specific structure.” Thao agreed, saying, “We learn new things each rehearsal; we keep experimenting.”
With Anon(ymous)’s stylistic needs, Calenberg worked closely with lighting designer Ryan Hatfield and costume designer Sue King in order to bring the cultural focus to life. The stage will be an open area with a balcony, and chorus members will be providing sound off stage.
The show has a simple, straightforward style but it targets a mature sensibility. Calenberg even states that the author Iizuka has said the audience doesn’t need to have knowledge of The Odyssey to enjoy it; however, a knowledge of it will enhance the understanding of the show. As far as Calenberg is concerned, “We’re approaching this as a dramatic piece. The themes and styles of the piece are built for that.” The audience should be ready for a powerful ride.