A star-spangled Anthem

Sept. 11, 2002, midnight | By Anna Benfield Lily Hamburger | 18 years, 4 months ago

Note: All pictures of Anthem on this page were taken by Scott Suchman and are property of Arena Stage.

If you're expecting an average five-act show, you won't get one at Arena Stage this fall. Arena is showing Anthems: Culture Clash in the District, an eccentric and artistic celebration of life in Washington, D.C.

This sexy, sophisticated satire looks deeper than the tourists and monuments, capturing the personality and energy of the city. Anthems follows playwright Richard Montoya in his journey through the nation's capital just after the terror of September 11, 2001. The play exposes themes that are prevalent in D.C. and turns them into an energetic and interactive performance that draws explosions of laughter and even tears from the audience.

While cracking jokes about politicians and the National Zoo's panda, Anthems pays tribute to the capital and the people who inhabit it as victims of 9/11. "D.C. was also a ground zero. I wanted to do a piece that honors that," Montoya said.

Anthems is a montage of Montoya's interviews with the everyday citizens of Washington from all professional fields, ethnicities and lifestyles. All the characters are played by a nine-person cast representing a diversity of ideas and feelings about the District and about September 11. One of the most prominent themes explored on stage is race relations in D.C., including racial prejudices that stem from the terrorist attacks.

As the play opens, the lights come up through a mock grate on the stage, casting shadows on a distressed, gay panda complaining about cherry blossoms, high-strung zookeepers and his heart doctor whom he must share with Dick Cheney. The panda sets an off-beat tone for the show with his humorous identity crisis, as he is both black and white and an immigrant as well.

In the next scene we are introduced to Montoya, who plays himself, the playwright and one of three partners in Culture Clash, a group that travels around the country, writing satirical shows honoring the nation's cities. As he explains to Ben Bull, a grief counselor who he meets in the airport, September 11 interrupted their process of researching Washington.

One of Ben's closing lines in the scene presents a more solemn parallel mood to the panda's sarcasm. "Remember this, son – and don't ever forget – you are not a playwright this week, you are a war correspondent." With that, Bull sends a baffled Montoya off on a quest to find a "continuous anthem" for D.C. and its people.

Through re-enacted interviews with Arab taxi drivers, rich politicians, working class single moms, Abraham Lincoln, crazy old men, homeless people, government personnel, and thugged out teenagers, Montoya searches for an anthem as he samples the flavors of D.C. life. In the process, Anthems touches on the city's history and politics, as well as Israel-Palestine relations and poverty and employment issues. While the racism issue is present in most scenes, a powerful representation of the racist patriotism from 9/11 is conveyed through an Arab-hating white man and White-fearing Arab American man's unison repetition of the line "I know they're out there. I can feel it."

Despite Anthem's quirky characters and unique acting styles, the script often falls back on clichéd racial stereotypes which are usually funny but become repetitive. Perhaps because the three members of Culture Clash are Latino Americans, jokes about Latino Americans and Latino immigrants are overdone.

Because there are only nine actors, most players appear more than once. Everyone wears street clothes since they were playing characters straight off the streets of D.C., and slight variants portray changes in character.

The set and lighting were also kept simple, but the crew used them creatively to create a backdrop for the diverse scenes and settings, which included from Reagan National Airport, the zoo, heaven, a taxi and a ballroom. Varied styles of music helped to change the pace and mood of the play as it meandered through the different tempos of the city.

After a long and confusing quest for an anthem, Montoya realizes that his answers were right under his feet all along. Through what developed into a very introspective and personal journey, he affectively accomplished his goal of saluting the nation's capital and providing a unique perspective on the repercussions of 9/11. "Patriotism is tangled up," he said after the opening night performance. "I think tonight's show looks at the complications."

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Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »

Lily Hamburger. Lily Hamburger, managing sports editor, is a proud senior and back for another year on <i>Chips</i>. Lily is a sports fan, a singer, and a softball player. Her favorite food is macaroni and cheese, favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip and favorite ninja … More »

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