It’s hard to say whether or not a city as transient as Washington, D.C. has a stable soul. But in “Anthems”, Arena Stage’s newest play, a noble attempt is made to catalogue one. It is not hard to see that many cultures and backgrounds clash here, but when it comes to finding the pulse of this post 9/11 city, a problem arises. Can the city transcend the cold stereotype set by a bunch of marble fronts and government headquarters?
This dilemma is explored in “Anthems”. The play is an ambiguous account of a post 9/11 Washington, D.C. and whether or not its ‘anthem’ can ever be found. The audience joins a young playwright on his journey to Washington as he recounts the different people he meets and views that accompany them in a city that has inadvertently become, “the forgotten ground zero.”
Opening with a disgruntled panda at the national zoo, the play takes on a very surreal effect from the start. “There’s so much pressure on me!” spouts the panda, “you try mating in front of 300 people. There are no new pandas at the national zoo because I’m a gay panda!” shouts the frustrated mammal. Suddenly he notices a low flying plane, then, impact, and the tragedy of Sept. 11 has occurred.
From here on out a plethora of personal accounts are witnessed as a young playwright travels the streets of the District discovering a range of opinions on the national crisis. From the patriots to the anti-patriots, the locals to the immigrants, the piece makes the point that this is not a one sided issue, and no one can look at it from just one perspective without doing injustice to others.
In contrast to the dry accounts of numerous opinions in the street, the play mixes in a bit of comedic surrealism. In between each scene appears a dreamlike hallucination of national idols and history mixing with the present. A dreamscape appears with a ballroom filled with only interracial couples dancing and drinking. Civil war soldiers are the waiters. It is after the 9/11 disaster and one patron asks another, ‘have you had your botox injection yet?” The answer comes quickly with “yes! And I feel wonderful!”
Senators are dancing with young black women and suddenly a Middle Eastern Ambassador enters and is welcomed encouragingly by the crowd. Once the hype has quieted, a senator whispers to the host, “I want that Arab frisked up and down!”
Such surreal scenes are common throughout the play. Abe Lincoln makes several appearances, as does George Washington, None are without purpose, though. They act as relief from the pressure being felt by the playwright as his journey throughout the District continues.
Surreal, humorous, and confronting, “Anthems” brings forth a view of the District that few people beyond the beltway ever spent the time to notice, that of its conflicting diversity.