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Armenia and the Drama of Trauma: It Takes a Pillage

Ed Rampell: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide Center Theatre Group and the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance joined forces with Center Theatre Group to present “Staging the Un-Stageable: The Esthetics of Dramatizing Atrocity” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Armenian genocide

Photos by Craig Schwartz

STAGING THE UN-STAGEABLE Theatre Review

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide Center Theatre Group and the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance joined forces to present “Staging the Un-Stageable: The Esthetics of Dramatizing Atrocity” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. This 317-seat Culver City theatre was an especially appropriate venue for this remembrance of a grave historic injustice because it is named after the actor who helped break the Hollywood Blacklist by insisting that Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, received screen credit for writing the 1960 screen epic about one of humankind’s greatest freedom fighters: Spartacus.

Would that Spartacus and his army of gladiators and freed slaves existed in 1915, to defend unarmed Armenian civilians from the mass slaughter carried out by the Ottoman Empire and its military. “Un-Stageable” remembered the events that began to spiral out of control in Constantinople that started on “Red Sunday”, April 24, 2015, and then spread to Anatolia, with scenes from three Armenian-themed plays performed by highly accomplished thespians, followed by a panel discussion.

Playwright Bianca Bagatourian, President of the ADAA, and Pier Carlo Talenti, Center’s Director of New Play Development, welcomed the hundreds of spectators to the sold out theatrical event, which was then blessed by an Armenian clergyman who poetically suggested that god spoke through the arts.

Armenian genocide

Oscar nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo

Acclaimed, award winning director Michael Arabian directed each of the vignettes, beginning with UK dramatist Neil McPherson’s I Wish To Die Singing – Voices From The Armenian Genocide, a verbatim play using the actual words by participants to describe the indescribable. Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo - who was Academy Award-nominated for co-starring opposite Ben Kingsley in 2003’s House of Sand and Fog and was likewise stellar in 2008’s The Stoning of Soraya M. - portrayed an Islamic character, Fethiye Cetin. (Unlike most Turks, the Armenians are Christians.) Hrach Titizian (an L.A.-born actor of Armenian ancestry who had a recurring role in Showtime’s Homeland series) portrayed the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau - a Jew, who denounced the genocide that predated the one that would overwhelm his own people around 20 years later. Ken Davitian (also an L.A.-born actor of Armenian descent, best known for playing Azamat in 2006’s Borat) depicts ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Talaat Pasha, who typifies war criminals with callous disregard for human life. (McPherson’s documentary drama is currently being presented at London’s Finborough Theatre.)

In Lebanese/Armenian/Pakistani playwright Sevan Kaloustian Greene’s Forgotten Bread Titizian plays The Lost Son, a character who symbolizes the disconnect between generations of Armenians. Traumatized by the genocide, many Armenian elders were unable to find the words to discuss the unspeakable horrors they witnessed with their children, grandchildren, etc. The Lost Son yearns to reconnect with his presumably long lost grandparents and somehow manages to do so. Boston-born big and little screen veteran Karen Kondazian and Sam Anderson (this actor with the familiar face had a recurring role on the ABC series Lost and has appeared in films such as 1994’s Forrest Gump) play the perhaps ghostly loving couple who shed light on the family history for their grandson.

Actress/playwright Leslie Ayvazian appears in an excerpt of her 15/15, co-starring Christine Kludjian, Titzian and Davitian. Ayvazian portrays Beatrice, who visits her presumably dying husband John (Davitian) in the hospital. If Davitian has a singular visage and form, Ayvazian and Kludjian seemed to radiate, carrying themselves with a stately bearing, knowing that they represent their peoples with exquisite beauty and presence.

Armenian genocide

Following a brief intermission Ayvazian joined a panel moderated by that avatar of all things theatrical in L.A., critic extraordinaire Steven Leigh Morris, who kicked things off with a question regarding the “evidence” of genocide. Ayvazian replied that the stories of the survivors are a form of proof and went on to confess: “I’ve always wondered if I’m a good enough Armenian?” The playwright/actress, who wrote Nine Armenians and has appeared in films such as Mike Nichols’ 1988 Working Girl proceeded to rant about her next door neighbors in “a bourgeois apartment house in New York” who just so happen to be of Turkish ancestry. (Perhaps fate is testing - or teasing - Ayvazian?) Although she described her neighbors as nice enough professionals whose children she plays with, Ayvazian admitted she was infuriated by their “denial” about the Armenian genocide, which they professed ignorance of.

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This raises important questions - not only about the traumatization that cross-pollinates across generations, but about what the responsibility is of members of a group whose ancestors committed atrocities? Can a Turk today be held accountable for crimes against humanity committed by Ottomans a century ago? For that matter, what of contemporary non-Native settlers in what we now call “America”: can they be held responsible for the genocide of Indian tribes committed more than 100 years ago? What if your ancestors weren’t even living in America when the Red Man and Woman was being expunged from the face of the Earth in order to steal a continent? Today’s non-Natives may not have had a hand in this mass slaughter but they arguably do benefit from this massive depopulation and dispossession. Perhaps it behooves members of the current generation of the dominant culture to remember; apologize; and redress these legitimate grievances.

It is often said that “history is written by the winners,” but this is not always true - the Armenian plays are a case in point, artistic records written by history’s “losers.” Panelist Jose Luis Valenzuela, Artistic Director of LATC and the Latino Theater Company, noted that while 750,000 people of Mexican ancestry were deported from the southwestern USA from 1935-1939, few know about this tragedy. The sagacious éminence grise of the Los Angeles stage went on to criticize the notion that theatre is a thing of “commerce,” insisting: “There are voiceless people… Theatre provides the need for the voiceless to tell their story. Theatre sometimes provokes, is dangerous, challenging…”

Armenian genocide

Director Michael Peretzian pointed out that it’s not enough for a play to be about a profound topic, such as the Armenian genocide: it also has to be a well done piece of theatre in order to engage ticket buyers. Peretzian cited a play he’d helmed, Red Dog Howls, Alexander Dinelaris’ drama dealing with the ethnic cleansing of Armenians, as an example.

On a philosophical note Greg Hittelman, Communications Director of the anti-genocide Enough Project, asked: “One of those eternal questions is: Why do we kill one another? Why don’t we love one another? It’s unfathomable.” Hittelman added, “Profiteering mechanisms drive violence.”

Following the thought provoking panel, including a freewheeling Q&A with audience members, spectators, cast and crew enjoyed camaraderie more than commiseration in the Kirk Douglas’ lobby, with a feast of Armenian appetizers catered by Glendale’s Carousel Restaurant.

This Jewish critic, whose own Kiev ancestors were butchered at Babi Yar, learned a lot at “Staging the Un-Stageable: The Esthetics of Dramatizing Atrocity”, which included a mural size timeline of the Armenians’ path to hell, which was also disbursed as a leaflet. In particular, I learned that according to international law, genocide is defined as: “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…” This is important because genocide, or the mass murder of a people, is not solely defined as being aimed at exterminating an entire group - it also applies to destroying part of a larger group (like, say, the Iraqis, Palestinians and unarmed African-Americans by police and vigilantes?). The Genocide Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly December 9, 1948 - but, alas, its implementation is far from universal.

BTW, may I exercise my constitutional right to free speech by making this observation: Pres. Obama may be unable to utter the “G word” in reference to what happened to Armenians, but isn’t tongue tied when it comes to slurring Baltimore’s militant youth as “thugs.” So, as one of those taxpayers coerced to pay the droner-in-chief’s salary, here’s some name calling until you can force yourself to say “Armenian GENOCIDE”: In all due disrespect, you sir are a fucking “COWARD.” (Paging Henry Morgenthau…)

Kudos to Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance president and playwright Bianca Bagatourian, who wrote the Howard Zinn bio-play The Time of Our Lies, and played a decisive role in organizing and presenting “Staging the Un-Stageable.” Every word Bagatourian writes is suffused with and tempered by the compassion wrought by a heritage of suffering and hope, which she strives to redeem and express through her poignant, powerful work, on- and off- stage and screen .

Ed Rampell

For more information see: http://armeniandrama.weebly.com/.

Ed Rampell