Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Anthems: Culture Clash in the District
Also see Tracy's interview with director Charles Randolph-Wright
The events of September 11th changed the United States forever. A renewed sense of patriotism has emerged from the tragic events of that day. However, as the country passes the one-year anniversary of one of the most atrocious acts of terrorism on America, the feelings of loss and devastation still linger. No one has been immune to these emotions, including the artistic community. As a result, new works of art have been born of this national tragedy.
In the past year we have been introduced to new books, art exhibitions, and music. The theater community has contributed as well. Many of these works have come out of New York. Most notably are the Bat Theatre Company's production of The Guys and the three day artistic remembrance called Brave New World.
Now Washington, DC, makes its contribution with Anthems: Culture Clash in the District. Commissioned by Arena Stage, Anthems explores Washington's diverse community during the aftermath of 9/11. The play follows a young playwright of Middle Eastern descent as he makes his way through the city, encountering every walk of life. He makes observations and conducts interviews with the people he meets to use as fodder for his play. His ultimate goal is to write a play that will serve as an "anthem." While doing this, he encounters racial and class issues, and it is soon obvious that Washington has a culture unto its own.
The author of this play, Richard Montoya, is one third of a group called Culture Clash. Together with Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, Mr. Montoya has created a number of theatrical pieces including the much admired Radio Mambo. With Anthems it is obvious that Mr. Montoya and his partners did their homework. He has truly captured the essence of this city. Any longtime resident of the nation's capital will find something that personally relates to them. However, this play is about more than local references. It is about the mood of the city and they way we treat our own. Montoya has related theses issues exceptionally well by creating an equal mix of comedy and drama.
One of his most clever devices comes in the form of a local celebrity - the male panda housed at the National Zoo. The panda is symbolic of the city as a whole. He is both black and white. In this play, the panda has the ability to speak and he reveals much about himself including his concerns about reproducing and his complaint that he is only a "GS-10."
Charles Randolph-Wright, noted director and author of the play Blue, has directed this piece with thought and care. He has concentrated the focus in such a way that the playwright character is not the heart of this piece, nor is the tragedy itself. Instead, the star is the living, breathing entity that is Washington, DC.
The cast is made up of an ensemble of incredibly gifted actors. Joining Culture Clash's Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas are Johanna Day, Bill Grimmette, Nikki Jean, Joseph Kamal, Jay Patterson, Psalmayene 24, and Shona Tucker. All of these actors exhibit their versatility by playing a host of different characters and they are all extremely effective. It is difficult to pick a particular standout, as all of these actors deliver superb performances.
A mention must be made of Alexander V. Nicols' striking set and lighting design, which is both functional and appealing. Additionally, the sound design by Timothy M. Thompson is extraordinary. If you were just to close your eyes and listen, you may actually feel as if you were sitting in a Metro station instead of a theater in southwest DC.
Anthems packs a lot of punch in its small package. From bureaucracy to botox - everything is fair game. And of course, there is that elusive anthem. It is there if we look and it is sweet and stirring, but most of all true.