James Almen always thought he’d like to try acting. At the age of 53, the musician and teacher at Vision Loss Resources is getting his first chance as a thespian with Full Circle Theater’s production of “ANON(YMOUS),” by Naomi Iizuka, presented by Park Square Theatre.
His presence on stage marks a growing trend to cast characters written to have disabilities with actors who actually have those disabilities. Historically, this hasn’t been the case.
But things are starting to change — in the theater world and beyond. For instance, Netflix’s recent series, “All the Light We Cannot See,” features blind actor Aria Mia Loberti as the central character Marie-Laure LeBlanc.
Almen isn’t necessarily against seeing actors playing blind characters. “I thought Al Pacino did a great job as a blind man 30 years ago,” he says. “I just think — if there is a blind guy or woman that can do it, give them an opportunity.” He credits Full Circle Theater for taking the initiative to find an actor with vision loss to play a character written as blind. “The cast is very diverse,” he says. “So it’s just been welcoming and I’m grateful for that opportunity.”
Founded in 2014 by Rick Shiomi and Martha B. Johnson, the company focuses on theater that engages around issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. “We can serve as a model for how to “walk the talk” of EDI through the consensus driven decision-making and creative process,” the website states. Besides its casting, the company also presents multiple accessibility options for the show, including audio description, closed captioning, American Sign Language interpretation, and mask requirement for select performances.
Based on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Iizuka’s adaptation, directed by Stephanie Lein Walseth, shares Odysseus’ world-traveling adventures through the eyes of a character named Anon, played with graceful vulnerability by Dominique Jones. A refugee, Anon was separated from his mother as a child, and seeks to survive in the face of racism, cruelty and dehumanization.
If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll recognize some of the scenes and characters. In “The Odyssey,” Odysseus’ wife Penelope serves as the object of his longing, for whom he journeys home. Iizuka’s version has Anon’s mother, Nemasani, in a counterpart role, played with gravitas by Charla Marie Bailey. Calypso, the nymph who traps Odysseus for seven years in “The Odyssey,” becomes Calista (played by Gabrielle Jones) in this version, Anon’s adopted sister who displays a controlling and inappropriate crush on her transracial adoptee new brother. Meanwhile, Polyphemus from the original story becomes a murderous butcher with an eye patch called Mr. Zyclo (played with wonderful creepiness by Edwin Strout).
Walseth’s direction displays a rich visual flair set within Mina Kinukawa’s engaging stage design. The performance is highly physical, and Almen even performs some scenes without a cane. When he’s performing as part of the Greek chorus, he’s paired with another actor, who he uses as a guide around the stage. “We kind of run together,” Almen says. “I was a little intimidated at first without a cane, but it’s working out.”
Almen also plays two speaking characters in the play. His largest character is named Ali, who Iizuka has written as a man who lost his sight during wartime. Ali runs a restaurant where Anon finds refuge, and shows kindness to the young wanderer. He also plays the ghostly character of Ignacio.
Almen found out about the role through his work, Vision Loss Resources. “I always have felt like I could have been an actor,” Almen says. “I responded to an email and said hey, I’d like to give it a try and read for it and see what happens.”
Originally from Brooklyn Park, Almen worked in sales earlier in life, then things changed when he began to lose his sight in 2008. “It’s kind of a mystery,” he says about the cause of his vision loss. He slowly started to lose sight in one eye, and then the other went six years later. Almen describes the cause as an autoimmune disorder. “They did everything to slow it down or save it, but eventually, one day, it just didn’t come back,” he says. “So it’s been nine years of living with that veil.”
In 2013, Almen got connected with VLR, learning skills he needed to thrive with his vision loss. Eventually, beginning in 2016, he’d become an instructor with the organization.
“I don’t do it for the money, because I just want to help blind people that are in my situation — just get on with their lives,” he says.
At first, the prospect of learning all of his lines and movements was a bit overwhelming. He’d performed as a musician in various bands over the years, but never had acted, especially not in a professional production with cast of top-notch actors. “I feel honored to be with these people,” he says. “I’m holding my own, but some of these guys are big time in the city.”
He’s gained confidence as the rehearsal process went on. “I wanted to prove to myself that I can do it,” he says. “I’m not going to sit around and just accept my blindness as something I have to live with— There are things I can do and overcome. I’m not trying to show off to anybody. I want to prove it to myself that I can do something different.”
The cast and production team have been incredibly supportive, Almen says, offering an arm when he needs one, and being verbally supportive, like saying their name when they enter his proximity. “They’ve been awesome,” Almen says.
“Anon(ymous)” runs through Nov. 19 at Park Square Theatre, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays (pay what you can). More information here.