Refugee odyssey

Anon(ymous) at Chico State—a journey for cultural identity

Nemasani (Sepi Burgiani) and her son Anon (Korey James Emslie) are swallowed by a blue fabric ocean in <i>Anon(ymous)</i>.

Nemasani (Sepi Burgiani) and her son Anon (Korey James Emslie) are swallowed by a blue fabric ocean in Anon(ymous).

photo by matt siracusa

“I don’t know where to begin.”

As his name suggests, Anon doesn’t know who he is. He is a refugee, displaced by a war in his country and living in America. He is an adult now, searching alone for a sense of place since being separated from his homeland as a child. He wants to find his mother, who may or may not have survived, but he doesn’t know where to start his journey, until he receives advice from a goddess/guardian angel named Naja: “Start in the middle.”

For its final dramatic production of the school year, Chico State’s Theater Department is staging Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous), a modern adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. And as much as its inspiration does, Anon(ymous) begins in media res—in the middle. The middle for Anon is where a new story begins, at that moment when the border is literally crossed from one world into another. The Homeric journey in Anon(ymous) is meant to mirror that difficult quest for cultural identity experienced by all refugees finding their way in America.

“We have a lot of really different ethnicities,” said director Susan Pate of her cast as she remembered sitting around the table at the first reading when the students shared backgrounds with one another. Pate said that the process of cultural exploration that the play brings out has been really fun for everyone involved, and the communication has even influenced the production.

For example, Sepi Burgiani, who plays Anon’s mother, and is of Persian descent, actually composed a song with her family for the play in their native Farsi. It’s set to the melody of a traditional Persian lullaby, and it makes for a very poignant scene when Burgiani sings it to her absent son early in the play.

Opening night was still a week away when I sat in the back row of Wismer Theatre with Pate—who teaches dance and theater at the university—and student Assistant Director Kimberly Small during a recent run-through. Lines and most of the movements had been memorized, but costumes, sound effects, and final lighting—were still a few rehearsals away.

Pate whispered explanations as the players rehearsed “fights and lifts” before the run-through—“That’s a boat,” she said as a group of actors representing a vessel carried Anon around on a platform. “Later on it’s a train.” It became immediately obvious that Pate’s dance expertise had influenced the production, with physical movement playing a part in communicating nearly every scene—from actors playing the parts of moving vehicles, storm winds and ocean waves, to the graceful choreography of fight scenes.

The black-box theater is arranged in the round, with a large square stage in the middle, and the play opens with a chorus of various refugees entering the scene from all sides and announcing dozens of images from their respective homelands: “Where I come from is the smell of orchid and mango and ripe papaya,” “Where I come from is waterfalls taller than the tallest skyscraper.” At the center of the scene, Korey James Emslie plays the confused Anon. At first, all he knows about where he comes from is that it’s “far away from here.”

Emslie is perfect in the role. Not only does he have a perfect light-brown complexion and dark hair that could suggest any number of nationalities, he also understands what makes his character heroic—bravery mixed with humility—and he plays the part flawlessly as he navigates his confusing world.

The play flashes back and forth from scenes of Anon’s circuitous journey after arriving in the country, to his journey toward his mother and a reunion with his heritage.

Iizuka originally wrote Anon(ymous) for a teen audience, and replaced some of The Odyssey’s myths with broadly painted social issues like immigrant exploitation and multiculturalism. Pate believes that the play’s modernization and abstract nature, and their creative use of sound, movement and other effects (and playing-up of some of the “sexy stuff”) in this production will make it appealing to a university audience. “I don’t think it dumbs down The Odyssey,” she said. “I think it pumps up the modern approach.”