Traumatized, the daughter, Anon, 14, is taken in by an Indian family, but has forgotten her identity. Meanwhile, her distraught mother ends up working in a sweatshop.
“It’s loosely based on ‘The Odyssey,’ a hero’s journey to learn his identity and find his family,” explained director Enza Giannone-Hosig. “And with what’s happening right now in our world and in Virginia – as we accept new immigrants every day – it’s relevant. Many of the students are immigrants themselves, and I’m the first of my family born in America.”
Furthermore, she said, “They’re teens already figuring out who they are and where they belong, so there’s a lot in this play we can relate to. They also feel like the story makes them visible, while making immigrants human and not anonymous.”
The curtain rises, Friday-Saturday, Oct. 8-9 and Oct. 15-16, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10, adults, and $5 with a student I.D., cash or check only at the door, or via www.westfieldtheatre.com.
Senior Dewa Alam portrays Anon’s mother, Nemasani, who’s sewing clothes in a factory after being rescued. “She’s a quiet, attractive lady who thinks her daughter is drowned and lost forever, so she’s sewing a shroud for her,” said Alam. “She’s a sad, depressed soul. But at the same time, she isn’t fully sure of her child’s fate. She’s a mother and doesn’t want to give up hope that she’s alive.”
“I wanted this role because I’m a refugee,” continued Alam. “I came here two years ago from Afghanistan, but I was separated from my mother for six years. And then it took a while for us to act normal again with each other, so I can really identify with my character.”
She said the audience will like learning about what immigrants have to endure – “and especially now, with all the Afghani immigrants. And they’ll all like the mystery of wondering whether Nemasani and her daughter will be reunited.”
Playing Anon is sophomore Gisselle Vallejos. “Anon doesn’t really know herself, yet,” said Vallejos. “She’s shy and doesn’t know how to communicate well with people. She also doesn’t remember anything after the boat capsized. But the goddess Naja tells her some of the memories she’s forgotten. And although Anon knows she’s lost her mother, she still has hope that she’s alive and she can find her.”
Vallejos said Anon is an interesting character to play because “Although she’s lost her memory, her personality shines through the whole play. So the audience gets to see her finding herself and hoping she’ll be reunited with her mother. I never expected to get a big role like this, but I’m excited about it. And this play allows us to learn about the tragic experiences immigrants have gone through.”
As for the audience members, Vallejos believes the show’s overall message will resonate with them. “It’s about finding who you are – even if you’re just labeled as an anonymous alien from another country,” she explained. “It’s about getting seen and knowing that you matter.”
Junior Matthew Florian portrays Yuri Mackus, the abusive owner of the sweatshop where Nemasani works. “He’s a domineering, creepy womanizer who wants to keep running his business,” said Florian. “But most of all, he wants to marry Nemasani – whose coworkers consider her a mail-order bride for Yuri. They don’t know her real story, but he’s ordered multiple, mail-order brides in the past.”
Florian called his part “one of the most aggressive and terrible people I’ve ever played. But it gives me the acting freedom to be over the top and be a villain. I’ve learned it’s nothing to be afraid of and is actually quite fun. And Yuri’s a memorable, well-developed character with many layers.”
He said attendees will enjoy seeing Anon triumph. “She’s different from other heroes because she’s a clueless kid who often acts in her own best interests,” said Florian. “But that’s until she’s compelled to fight to save Nemasani.”
Freshman Preet Manukonda plays Nasreen, Anon’s friend at the Indian restaurant she’s gone to in search of food because she’s starving. Nasreen’s parents own the restaurant, and she finds Anon there, going through the trash.
“Nasreen is a little childish, but has good intentions and is friendly and outgoing,” said Manukonda. “I like playing her because I can really relate to her. Culturally, we’re both Indian, and she and I are both willing to make new friends. I wear a traditional, Indian dress with jeans at the restaurant. Otherwise, when I play a refugee, I wear all black like the other refugees in the ensemble.”
She said the ensemble scenes will really stand out because “they can get heavy and emotional. We’re all onstage together as refugees – and that’s really powerful because we all talk together and share our experiences.”
The show also has funny parts, and even a “Greek chorus” commenting on the immigrants’ stories. Giannone-Hosig says it’ll appeal to all ages, and the audience will appreciate “the creativity the actors put into playing multiple characters and the unique way they take us from one setting to the next.”
The cast and crew of 55 had a short rehearsal period. But, said Giannone-Hosig, “They’re stepping up and working hard. Almost 80 kids attended our theater-interest meeting, and it proved how much they love the arts and what they can do for them. They were also hungry for interactions with others and being back onstage in person.”