A forensic poet gathering little bits," a deejay "searching for my anthem." These are the ways actor/playwright Richard Montoya describes his task in the play Anthems: Culture Clash in the District, which is receiving a gripping world premiere at Washington's Arena Stage.
Montoya is digging through a large bag of shredded paper on stage when he makes these remarks, but the text for this funny, moving, absorbing work was primarily assembled not from the detritus of documents but from interviews with people in and around Washington.
The interviews were conducted by Montoya and the other members of the California-based Chicano/Latino performance trio Culture Clash, which has also created site-specific works in other cities.
The members of Culture Clash (Montoya, Ric Salinas, who also appears in Anthems, and Herbert Siguenza, who does not), didn't know what they'd find when they began working on this latest play, an Arena Stage commission, more than two years ago. Then halfway into the process, their mission was brought into sharp, unexpected focus by the events of Sept. 11.
Most of the post-Sept. 11 script work was done by Montoya, and the resulting play, in which he portrays himself, depicts the process of its own creation. Writing a play about writing a play can result in a self-absorbed, navel-gazing production. But while Anthems could stand a few trims, the work - directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and featuring a cast of nine - is far from self-indulgent or arty.
Instead, it is a superlative example of the kind of cross-cultural understanding we can only hope has arisen in the wake of the tumultuous events of a year ago.
All this in a show that starts out with a hilarious monologue delivered by a panda. Not just any panda, mind you. This is Tian Tian, the male panda on which the National Zoo is resting its hopes for baby pandas. "You make a baby with 300 people watching you!" whines the depressed, anxiety-ridden bear, played by Montoya in white trousers and turtleneck, black leather sport coat, panda mask and, of course, two-tone shoes.
The scene then shifts to the Los Angeles airport on Sept. 17, 2001, where Montoya meets a grief counselor named Ben Bull (Jay Patterson), also on his way to Washington. One of several recurring characters, this garrulous Texan is the one who, upon hearing Montoya's mission, urges him to make his play "an anthem."
Bull also makes an appearance in the evening's most wrenching scene, accompanying a retired naval officer (Bill Grimmette) to the Pentagon, where his daughter was killed. There's plenty of talk in Anthems, but Culture Clash also knows how to make use of eloquent silence. That's certainly the case when we watch this proud military man in full uniform, his grief-stricken wife at his side, as they walk toward the building that became his daughter's tomb.
Mohammed, a Jordanian-born D.C. cab driver (affably played by Joseph Kamal) is another effective recurring character. In an especially forceful vignette, he and a couple of Arab friends occupy one side of the stage while a drunken, white gun-toting "patriot" and his cronies occupy the other. "They're out there. I can feel it," say both Mohammed and the gun nut, each stricken with racial paranoia.
Although most of the scenes and characters contribute welcome facets to the whole, a few - particularly a mimed sequence about a Salvadoran immigrant and a brief appearance by the Wizards' cheerleaders - are extraneous. Montoya also stalls a bit near the attenuated ending, a shortcoming he seems aware of since he includes several references to the difficulty of reaching a conclusion.
All of this is eminently fixable, however. And at its best - which is most of the time - Anthems sings a song that is powerfully resonant and life-affirming. Far from a flag-waving spectacle, this show cuts to the core of what America can be at its best - a nation that embraces diversity and understanding.
Corny as it may sound, Anthems evokes both laughter and tears. A healing hymn, it deserves to be heard by audiences not only in the Washington-Baltimore area, but beyond.
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Oct. 13