BY CECILE KESHISHIAN
PASADENA— On the happy occasion of Taleen Babayan’s play, “Where Is Your Groom? (Փեսադ Ո՞ւր Է:)” on Sunday, March 31, three guests and I attended this original, and beautiful play at the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Performing Arts Center.
The 600 seats were completely filled and there were no parking spots available—something we had never before encountered at that venue. Many people had to go back home, as there were no available tickets for the sold-out show. The theater was at capacity and I was unable to sit with my guests. A nice couple, Sonia and Ara gave us their seats and left to sit separately, respecting our Senior Citizen status.
Not only did Taleen write the play, she also was the director and the producer. An American born Armenian from the East Coast, she grew up in a very solid Armenian intellectual home and presented us with this jewel of a play. The play itself depicts the mentality of Armenian parents towards their children, as they are raised in a Diasporan community, desiring that their children marry an Armenian in order to preserve their identity.
By using satire in the play, Taleen depicts how Armenian in-laws interact with each other; how an Armenian wedding should be planned, and how their future grandchildren should be raised. Each party insists it should be their way, completely ignoring the ideas or wishes of the most important person—that of the bride-to-be. Each side constantly pushes their own ideas. First they argue about the dress the bride has to wear, then about the music that has to play at the wedding, and everything in between.
In this world, we don’t only need doctors as the grooms for Armenian brides. Instead, we need it all: the doctors, the lawyers, the engineers, the politicians, and the artists. Artists are the ones who observe society, using their observations to comment on the community, in order for it to evolve and enhance. For this reason, we have to thank Taleen for her art and congratulate her for offering her perspective, through her play, to the Los Angeles Armenian Community with great fanfare and to a room filled with a standing crowd.
At times these important messages are delivered most directly and most easily through satire and comedy. This is similar to what playwright Hagop Baronian did in 19th century Constantinople, when he highlighted the flaws of the societal life and influential figures in Armenian social circles. Baronian was able to do so through his sense of humor. While centuries have passed, this approach has transcended into the writing of the next generation, namely through our young and talented Taleen Babayan’s Where Is Your Groom? (Փեսադ Ո՞ւր Է:).
The play was a huge creative undertaking, which Taleen began six years ago when she gathered a group of young Armenians, with diverse backgrounds at the Players Theatre in New York City’s historic Greenwich Village. There, she staged a theatrical story that conveyed the voice of their generation. What was meant to be a one-time production swelled to 15 performances across the country, where thousands enjoyed the humor and the message of the play. Responding to positive feedback, I hear that Taleen debuted Part II at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in 2017, where again the venue was filled to capacity with audience members who were eager to see the story of a Diasporan Armenian family battling assimilation and upholding tradition continue to unfold.
In addition to the humor felt during the play, there was a sense of deep understanding. I have hope that the deep level of understanding came, at some point in the play, where each of the audience members connected with a line of dialogue, a character, a plot point, forcing them to reflect on their own lives and their own behaviors. The continuous uproars of laughter were unstoppable. It was clear everyone was thoroughly enjoying the evening.
What has happened behind the curtains was equally important to the action that took place on the stage. Performers met, friendships formed and couples married. With this, the Diasporan Armenian theater life was rejuvenated from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., all the way to Pasadena. I was also lucky to have met and married my husband at the AGBU Cultural Club in Beirut, Lebanon. Clubs, theatre groups, and all kinds of activities are great venues to potentially meet your future partner.
Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, our parents always taught us the importance of service, particularly to the Armenian community. As orphans of the Armenian Genocide, they understood very well the significance of carrying on a rich and storied history that had come close to extinction one too many times. My siblings and I, in our own individual ways, supported projects that had a profound impact on our community, from the Diaspora all the way to Armenia. What I experienced at the play performance last Sunday gave me hope for the next generation. That someone of Taleen’s caliber, who graduated from the finest universities (Tufts University and Columbia University) and whose family has left an indelible mark on the community, has chosen to dedicate her time to the Armenian cultural life in the most productive manner. It was amazing, that, as I said, every single one of the 600 seats in the theater was taken and people were, sadly, turned away at the box office.
Taleen made a conscious effort to entertain and educate while upholding a production level not of Armenian standards but on par with American theater life. And it clearly paid off. From the very first line of dialogue, she and her cast and crew of 20 hooked the audience and took all of us on a two hour journey that brimmed with laughter, well-developed characters, and a story that gives us optimism when thinking of the Diaspora, our homeland, and ultimately our people. I say this as someone who is savvy about theater and who has seen countless Broadway shows when we would visit our daughter, Aleen, when she lived in New York City. We would see a Broadway play Friday evening when we arrived in New York, Saturday evening and a Sunday matinee before driving back to Boston. A lot of the professionalism I saw in those Broadway shows, I also saw in Taleen’s play. The difference between the two is that Broadway shows have hundreds of people working on their productions, while Taleen is one-person who was handling the directing, the producing, the writing, the technical aspects, the overall organization, and leading a 20 person cast and crew.
Taleen has marinated in her Armenian upbringing since birth. Who does not know her educator grandfather Yervant Babayan? Born and raised in the East Coast, Taleen speaks the language fluently (I always see her writing in Armenian during her coverage of events at the Western Diocese), understands the nuances of the history as well as the culture and the climate of the various communities, as she constantly has her finger on the pulse of Armenian happenings. She appreciates the Armenian language, values those who came before her, recognizes the importance of both the Diaspora and the homeland, and is able to tie these elements together into a relatable play that welcomes people of all backgrounds—including Armenians who don’t speak the language, noting they are just as Armenian as the rest of us.
Her perseverance is unmatched, as is her discipline, work-ethic, and her passion for her writing. The energy and effort she puts forth to stage meaningful work for the Armenian community is evident not only in her play, but through the documentary she shot on location in Artsakh last summer, as well. I hope we will see that too, one day. I wonder if anyone could do even a quarter of this, on his or her own, or with a group of writers, in an adopted community. Taleen is doing the work of Armenian organizations and bringing what should be their mission to fruition, all the while forging a contemporary Armenian group, embracing their uniqueness, and leaving those involved in the play positively affected by the experience. We were amazed by the, mostly amateur, performers who played their roles like talented professionals.
We are all descendants of a certain person, of a certain place and of a certain time. My parents escaped the massacres and overcame many obstacles and hardships to form a new Armenian family, perhaps the strongest answer to attempted annihilation. Taleen, too, comes from a lineage of genocide survivors and keeps her family’s legacy of public service alive for the benefit of our Armenian Diaspora.
BRAVO Taleen, we love you and we are very PROUD of you!