BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
The dozen or so productions that comprised the 2019 “season” of Armenian theater in Southern California could be described as “eclectic,” if one were being generous, or randomly assembled, if one were being honest. They included a children’s show (Hamazkayin Theater Company’s engaging “The Adventures of Chi Gareli”), a pair of solo performances (Anahid Aramouni Keshishian’s farewell work, “Ka Yev Chka 1+2+3…,” just before she repatriated to Armenia, and Herand Markarian’s weighty “Khrimian Hayrig”), a socially conscious dramedy by the Armenian Theater Company (a rendition of Aramashot Papayan’s “Kna Merir, Yegour Sirem” about familial obligations to aging parents); and a pair of farces (AGBU Satamian Group’s instantly forgettable “Hotel Paradiso” and Taleen Babayan’s frequently witty “Where Is Your Groom? II” – a rarity in that it actually marked an improvement on the original). Babayan made a second contribution to the year’s crop with “Charles,” an homage to musical icon Charles Aznavour.
Remarkably, nearly all these productions were performed in Armenian; however, I want to focus the remainder of this article on two English-language plays (one of them by me), both of which dealt with the aftermath of the Genocide but did so in widely divergent ways. A revival of Richard Kalinoski’s “Beast on the Moon” led me to reflect about a sub-genre of Armenian drama that can be deemed the Theater of Victimhood, whereas the world premiere of my latest play, “Constantinople,” pointed an alternative path to a Theater of Resilience.
Theater of Victimhood
The oft-produced “Beast” is perhaps the leading exemplar of plays that wallow in the Genocide’s devastation. (For its summer revival at the International City Theatre, a smattering of skulls and bones literally framed the stage as part of the set design.) Sentimental to the point of emotional manipulation, Kalinoski’s play follows the lives of Aram Tomasian, an Armenian immigrant in Milwaukee, and his child-bride, Seta, over the course of a dozen years, mostly spanning the 1920s. Aram and Seta are the sole survivors of families decimated during the Ottoman Turks’ genocidal campaign. Haunted by overwhelming loss, Aram intends to replace his lost relations by creating a new family, but Seta, whose body has been emaciated by starvation, is unable to bear children. Thwarted in their efforts to carve a future, Aram and Seta are trapped in the trauma of the past, which unspools with devastating detail over the course of the play.
A “memory play” structure also shapes “Red Dog Howls” by Alexander Dinelaris, which premiered in L.A. some years before its author became an Oscar-winning screenwriter. The climax to that (melo)drama was a “reveal” by a Genocide survivor of a barbaric act so dark and heinous as to verge on the exploitative.
I am in no way suggesting that our theater arts should sidestep these stories of horror, given that they’re inspired by wrenching real-life experiences. The memoirs of survivors provide a key to our understanding of the scale and magnitude of the Genocide’s atrocities. I, for one, have incorporated first-hand accounts in staging “i Go On,” an outdoor, site-specific performance at Grand Park in conjunction with the iWitness installation of oversized facial photos of survivors. What I find problematic is the tendency of Armenian theater to merely confront victimhood rather than striving to transcend it. Leslie Ayvazian’s “100 Aprils,” for instance, which had its world premiere in L.A. last year, features as its central character the son of Genocide survivors who remains so scarred by his parents’ trauma – and the persistent Turkish campaign of denial, which compounds the trauma – that he literally requires hospitalization after suffering a psychotic break.
Theater of Resilience
Four years ago, I wrote “Happy Armenians,” a fantastical play which envisioned a parallel universe in which Armenia never lost its last (Cilician) kingdom, never suffered Ottoman subjugation (and, hence, genocide), and emerged as a modern-day empire. The play I wrote this year, “Constantinople,” had an entirely different tone and was altogether rooted in realism, but it was equally relentless in resisting victimhood.
Unfolding in the Ottoman capital during the post-Genocide era of Allied occupation, “Constantinople” explores the intersecting lives of a feminist, a guerilla fighter (fedayee), and a poet – all of them collaborating on clandestine activities to recover Armenian women and children abducted during the Genocide, and transporting supplies and weapons into the Armenian republic that was briefly independent around that time.
While the characters of “Constantinople” have not been spared the ravages of the Genocide – one has been raped and impregnated by her abductor; several have lost families and life partners – the play refuses to be a tale of lament and mourning. Rather, it focuses on the characters’ fight, even in the face of overwhelming odds, for the salvation of the fledgling Armenian republic, for the regaining of ancestral lands, for women’s rights, for love, for the promise of a better future, and against illness and the cruelties of time. “Constantinople” and “Beast” are as unlike as two plays that have the Genocide as their springboard can be.
For me, “Happy Armenians” and “Constantinople” constitute conscious, intentional departures from the Theater of Victimhood toward a Theater of Resilience (or Empowerment). Over the course of the past 100 years, our socio-political response to the Genocide and its lingering trauma has changed; so too must our artistic response evolve. The changes have been particularly seismic over the past three decades, thanks to giant leaps in the volume and caliber of academic research into the Genocide, and ever-increasing global recognition of it. Perhaps the most profound change has been demographic, with the emergence of the first generation of Armenians who’ve come of age without ever knowing a world without an independent Armenia and who’ve never met a Genocide survivor, let alone be shaped by their chronicles of anguish, as my generation was.
My vision, then, for 2020 and beyond, is for a form of theater that grapples with these changing dynamics and engages with them in a way that goes beyond the recitation of suffering and into the realm of exploring how survivors regain power in the aftermath of tragedy.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His most recent play, “Constantinople,” had its world premiere production in Los Angeles this past fall and will be revived in the Bay Area in the spring. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.