Describing the plot of Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous) sounds like a conversation for adults to discuss while the children at the dinner table cover their ears. Refugees thrown from one disastrous situation to the next, dead parents and discrimination all factor directly into this story of a child trying to find her way home – even when she’s not sure where, or what, home is.
Nevertheless, Purple Crayon Players, who strive to bring high-quality theater productions to young audiences, gladly took on this daunting task. From Oct. 13-14, in McCormick Auditorium at Norris, their newest production delivers the story of Anon(ymous) to audiences in seventh grade and up without condescending to them or backing away from the play’s darker themes.
“We did not want to do a Theater for Young Audiences piece that spoke to kids in neon colors and balloons and rainbows,” said Meredith Mackey, the show’s producer. “There’s a lot going on in the world that makes a lot of people miserable and sad, and it’s nice to have a play that talks about issues that are happening right now, with the undercurrent of ‘it’s all going to be OK.’”
Mackey, a SESP junior, has worked to make sure the production is “honest about the world we’re living in,” recognizing that young audiences are much smarter and more attuned to the world than adults usually give them credit for. While Anon(ymous) is being shown on campus only and middle schoolers (and older) are invited, Purple Crayon Players’ spring show will tour local schools.
Mackey said she and the show’s director, Communication sophomore Meghan Considine, read through about 40 scripts in the span of two or three weeks trying to find the perfect play that speaks about the world today, and finally settled on Anon(ymous). Though written over 10 years ago, Iizuka’s play remains relevant today, telling the story of a refugee crisis framed through the epic of Homer’s The Odyssey. The valiant warrior Odysseus is replaced by a child named Anon (played by Communication senior Shea Lee) who is stripped from her home and family and thrown into a world of both sympathetic friends and fearsome foes, including a psychopathic eyepatch-wearing butcher and an abusive sweatshop foreman.
Mackey describes the play’s scarier moments as “tapping into this concept of delicious fear … the type of fear that makes you lean in, and lean forward on your seat, and crave to see more.” Despite the countless obstacles Anon must face, the play is also full of lighter scenes that “take these moments that could be dark and heavy and create them into a celebration of journey rather than a dreading of it,” Mackey said.
Using The Odyssey as a backdrop for a refugee crisis may appear dissonant at first, but both the story of The Odyssey and the experience of refugees are “all about searching for home, and about searching for the people that feel like home,” Mackey said. By staying true to this underlying spirit, Anon(ymous) places this millennia-old Greek story with themes as old as time into a context especially relevant to the world today.
Much like Anon, many involved in telling her story celebrated new journeys of their own throughout production. Anon(ymous) is the first theater production at Northwestern for about a quarter of the 12-person cast and many of the crew. The play focuses on telling the stories of refugees and wanderers whose voices aren’t loudly heard in the world, and Mackey and Considine made sure to respect this message of inclusion during the process of production.
“[We] were committed to making sure that this team was a diverse one, both in terms of experience in ethnicity but also in terms of experience within theater,” Mackey said. “That involved a lot of reaching out to communities that otherwise wouldn’t be involved in theater on this campus.”
Along with varied backgrounds and acting talent, the cast brings music to the stage, too. Live guitar and melodic a cappella lullabies fill the stage multiple times throughout the play, adding a musical element that complements the show’s themes and tone.
Like the onstage melodies and like Anon’s journey in her search for home, the journey of the play’s production has been a team effort, where people relied on each other to accomplish something beautiful. “Having incredible cast members and team members and mentors by my side has made this process magical,” Mackey said.
The producer summarized the optimistic spirit behind Anon(ymous), sending a message that young and adult audiences alike ought to hear: “There’s always a storm, but it’s not one that you can’t weather.”
Purple Crayon Players’ Anon(ymous) runs Oct. 13, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the McCormick Auditorium in Norris Student Center. Admission is free.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the actors pictured in a photograph. The name has been corrected, and the change was made at 4:28 p.m. on Oct. 13.