A Conversation with Playwright Naomi Iizuka and Director Jon Jon Johnson

Naomi Iizuka's 'Anon(ymous)' tells the perennial story of refugees past and future

By Sophie Herreid, Caitlin Partridge, Lauren Patton

I had so many hopes.
I had so many dreams.
But I died
I died
I died along the way.
– Chorus of Refugees, ‘Anon[ymous]’

Playwright Naomi Iizuka needed a starting point for her play Anon(ymous), a modern-day tale of refugees torn from their homes. She found inspiration in an ancient source: The Odyssey.

Naomi Iizuka
Playwright Naomi Iizuka. Photo courtesy of Theatre Prometheus.

Theatre Prometheus’s production of Anon(ymous) is currently enjoying a celebrated run at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre.

In a recent conversation with the Theater Prometheus creative team, Director Jon Jon Johnson reflected on the universal themes in Anon(ymous). “For as long as there have been borders, there have been immigrants. For as long as there has been war, there have been refugees.”

It took some time for Iizuka to develop Anon(ymous) into what it is now.

In the early 2000s Iizuka was commissioned to develop a piece for the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, MN, which would explore drumming and its use in cultures around the world. She kept at it on and off for a year, but something wasn’t working. One night, after another false start, it finally clicked. “The idea of using the Odyssey as a framework just came to me,” she says, adding that it was something she knew well from her brief stint as a Classics major. “Suddenly, the script just flowed.”

She had a first draft of Anon(ymous) finished within a few weeks. It was wholly different from her original commission, and a year later, in 2004, it received a staged reading at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices festival. The piece returned to the Children’s Theater Company in 2006 for its world premiere.

The Children’s Theater Company was a fitting venue for the first full production of Anon(ymous). Iizuka has a particularly strong interest in the impact her work has on younger actors and audiences. “I hope [Anon(ymous)] cultivates an almost radical empathy in young audiences,” she says, adding, “periodically, I get emails from kids in the play and teachers doing the play. I find that touching and powerful.”

The cast of Anon(ymous)
The cast of ‘Anon(ymous)’: Aron Spellane, Kara Turner, Shaquille Stewart, Toni Rae Salmi, Peter Mikhail. Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

The classical text at the heart of Anon(ymous) isn’t just found in the characters and plot points. Iizuka’s script beautifully balances the original source material while adapting it for contemporary audiences. She incorporates a classical narrative Greek Chorus, though hers is a chorus of modern-day refugees. Johnson similarly took a balanced approach to the relationship between the play and its source material. “We looked for the parallels,” he says, “but I really didn’t try to impose them on the piece too much.”

There’s a fluidity to the ensemble in Johnson’s staging. Sometimes, they function as narrator and audience and crowd; other times, as when they represent workers in a sewing factory or refugees on a boat, they are individualized, if unnamed, characters. There are also moments when the chorus serves as landscape and architecture: they literally create the world of the play. “I love ensembles, the blending of voices and physicality, and the merging of individual voices into a collective whole more powerful than the singular,” says Johnson, who made a particular point to emphasize the role of the ensemble in his approach to the play.

Jon Jon Johnson
‘Anon(ymous)’ Director Jon Jon Johnson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The “blending of voices and physicality” is a recurring theme in the telling of this story. The play has its share of characters and moments grounded in (sometimes unnerving) realism. The narrative travels from stark reality, such as a room of refugee and immigrant women sewing in a bleak factory, to the imaginative and thrilling— there’s also a fantastical stiletto-wearing bird who enacts gory revenge. This scene with Zyclo’s Bird was one of Johnson’s favorite to develop: “Mining that character with Kara [Turner] and Aron [Spellane] turned out to be a really fun treat.”

Iizuka has a knack for writing plays that feel strikingly relevant year after year. Theatre Prometheus performed Iizuka’s Good Kids, another commissioned work, at the Capital Fringe Festival in 2016, and its themes of sexual assault and rape culture felt as resonant then as they would now, in light of the resurgence of the #MeToo movement and the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford.

Still, both Iizuka and Johnson feel that the relevance of this play in a given moment should not dilute its more universal themes. Although Iizuka recognizes that Anon(ymous) is perhaps more timely than ever, she stresses that we cannot forget that it is the perennial story of refugees and immigrants in the past and in the future.“It’s universal and transferable, regardless of the political climate,” Iizuka says. Johnson agrees. “I hate thinking of Anon(ymous) as ‘topical,’ because that means we forget about it and move on when the next thing happens.”

Anon(ymous) is a play about moving across borders, and this production is happening under a presidential administration obsessed with making U.S. borders impermeable, promoting hateful nationalistic rhetoric and calls to Build The Wall. As of this writing, a caravan of 4,000 people seeking asylum is moving toward the U.S.-Mexico border. They have, undoubtedly, heard of the family separations and other cruelties that may await them when they arrive. Yet this is not the first or second or even thousandth-time families have decided it’s safer to go than to stay; when the news cycle has moved on, these families will continue their journeys in the pursuit of a better and safer life.

This reality has been on Johnson’s mind as he considers what he hopes people will take away from his staging. “I wanted to remind audiences,” he says, “that the themes that we, citizens comfortable in our homes, consider important are the same things these families crossing the borders hold dear.”

Theatre Prometheus’ (Anon)ymous plays through Saturday, October 27 at the Silver Spring Black Box – 8641 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets and more information, go online.