Sevan Greene Takes a Fresh Approach on New York Stage to Exploring Genocide


Sevan Green

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Despite all the dramatic events at the turn of the last century — the Armenian earthquake, the independence of the Armenian Republic and the Karabagh struggle — the Armenian Genocide still sits squarely at the center of attention of most Armenian- Americans. A new play by Sevan Kaloustian Greene shows once more that its impact continues to be felt culturally and artistically. “Forgotten Bread,” directed by Johanna McKeon, premiered off- Broadway in a staged reading on September 13, at the 4th Street Theatre here. It was the first performance in a monthly series called “Highlight: Shedding Light on the Talents of Theatre Artists of Middle Eastern Descent,” which was sponsored by the Noor Theatre. Noor Theatre is a new company-in-residence at New York Theatre Workshop, which provides artistic and organizational guidance and material support.

The play begins with the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian, by all the actors and actresses, representing all the characters of the play. At first, it seems as if audience members have stumbled upon a theatrical production held in an Armenian church or some other community center. Some original Armenian-language songs like Ur es mayrig [Where are You, Mother?] are sung in places in the production, sometimes with modifications, by the characters. The theme of loss in diaspora, the threat of jermag chart (“white massacre,” or cultural annihilation), is constantly reiterated and the play ends with a call to struggle against this loss through talking and remembering the past.

The parents and family of the Lost Son refuse to transmit the stories of suffering to the new generations in order to spare them the pain these stories will engender. The Lost Son, however, feels a need to retrieve this information which he senses has been denied to him. He feels lost in the United States, and struggles to piece together what he can of the past through historical sources and documents. Yet these do not come together with the same force and meaning as the actual individual stories of his grandparents would. His voyage of discovery eventually leads to an unveiling of the torment of the survivors, as well as of the unfortunate victims of the Armenian Genocide. The play alternates between the points of view of various characters and tries to explain motivations and behavior without judging any of the three generations depicted.

There is a tragicomic undercurrent to the play that pops up at various intervals. The Lost Son, for example, while lamenting not fitting in with American or Armenian society because of his mixed background, declares that his family tree is just a stump. The friends Jarbig 1 and Jarbig 2 are young boys who survive by their wits and manage banter among themselves, bittersweet as it is.

The grandmother, a survivor, had died when the Lost Son was still too young to attempt to explore her past. Years later when he wanted more information, his mother and aunt would avoid explanations, trying to shield him from the pain that their family had endured. This, Greene feels, forms part of a second cultural genocide, self-inflicted but ultimately caused by the pain of the actual attempt at annihilation of the Armenians. The Lost Son thus exclaimed, “We are brought into this world already lost.”

Greene portrays attempts at brutal assimilation in Ottoman-Turkish orphanages, often leading to the deaths of the Armenian orphans. He implicitly compares this with the assimilation and consequent trauma of absence experienced by contemporary Armenians.

The play does not only show the stories of victims, but also shows resistance, specifically through six fighters in Musa Dagh. These characters were a little stylized at times. The play goes on to trace their fates, as the five of them who survived returned to rebuild their villages when the French occupied the region. They are uprooted once more when the French gave their lands to Turkey, and sent those who wanted to Lebanon. Four of the six left for the sake of their children to Anjar, a village founded in Lebanon by survivors of Musa Dagh. Then, there was a call to “repatriate” to the “homeland,” to Soviet Armenia. Only one, Hatar, went. He felt obligated and declared, “I followed my people…to do what is needed for them.” The others no longer had the strength to move one again.

The Lost Son faces the dilemma of the generations in exile. He mourns the marriages of his cousins to non-Armenians as part of the further loss of his cultural heritage. He hates himself for having succeeded in assimilating, a necessity at first, and hates his family for aiding in that process by concealing the tragic recent past from him. The gates to the past began closing with the deaths of his grandparents, but Greene points out that the past can never be completely cast into oblivion. The grandparents try to keep the past silent, but “ashes are stirred and the fire burns again.” When they get together with their coevals they inevitably speak about the experiences of the Genocide.

Even contemporary efforts at denial of the reality of the Genocide by the Turkish government are alluded to in the play. At the end, the Lost Son declares that to prevent the injustice of oblivion, and for the sake of their tormented, lost ancestors, Armenians must communicate their past, not just to each other, but to the rest of the world. Recognition of the events of 1915 is, Greene feels, the least that “restless spirits” of the Armenians’ ancestors deserve, and through the words of the Lost Son, he issues a call to work towards this goal. He does not want the Armenians to become “forgotten bread,” a reference taken from a poem by Helene Pilibosian which was used by David Kherdian as the title of an anthology similarly attempting to resuscitate semi-forgotten gems of Armenian-American literature.

The play packed in an enormous amount of historical information. It may actually have been too much for somebody not familiar with the twists and turns of modern Armenian history to process in the course of an evening. At the same time, there were parts of the play which had enormous emotional impact. The audience identified with the characters who were condemned to death in the Genocide and who were presenting the tragedy of their lives in the first person. One particularly powerful scene was that of the “River Maidens,” four young women who in a first-person direct manner expressed what they were undergoing as they had to endure unbearable torments. One of them was raped and brutalized, and she chose death through drowning in the Euphrates River. Her friends chose to join her rather than eventually face similar brutalization. They and their sisters turned the Euphrates into a red river of blood.

Greene, who appeared in his own play as the Lost Son, is a multi-talented young man with a complicated heritage. He characterizes himself as “a Lebanese- Armenian -Pakistani- American actor, writer and singer.” He speaks Armenian, French, Arabic and English. Born and raised in Kuwait, he escaped with his family from the first Gulf War in 1990 to the US, and after finishing high school and college in Florida, has been living in New York for the last three years. He spent much of his time, even while in school, acting, and only later began writing. He has another script on an Armenian topic he wrote after “Forgotten Bread”. “Dun” (“Home,” in Armenian) is about a Lebanese-Armenian family in New Jersey dealing with intergenerational relations. It focuses on Armenian-Diasporan issues.

Most of Greene’s work so far concerns non- Armenian subjects. Three scripts deal with topics including terrorism (“BlahBlahBlah!, Or the Say Something Play”), truth and fear in Iraq (“Babel”) and an Indian dreaming of life in America (“Call Center Cantata”). “N.Y.B.” is a screenplay concerning six “brown” people’s ethnicity and self-discovery in New York, while (in parentheses) it is a road trip screenplay about three friends.

Greene “accidentally stumbled upon” Peter Balakian’s memoir of coming to grips with his Armenian heritage, Black Dog of Fate, in which the Genocide loomed.

The origins of “Forgotten Bread” lie in the research Greene conducted for a novel. Greene explains: “The novel was not about the Genocide; it was a fiction novel dealing with the Armenian identity. It’s not finished yet. It is partially based on my grandmother’s life. She was born just outside of Istanbul and when the Genocide happened she found her way to Lebanon.” Greene used his grandmother’s story and all the eyewitness accounts he read during his research into the play. He wanted to call attention to the Armenian Genocide because “I didn’t feel that there was a strong play on it in the American canon and I wanted to fill that gap.”

Plays like “Beast on the Moon” were not produced on a large-enough scale for many people to see them. Greene also thinks that art can help both heal and educate people. He declared, “There is a different methodology and a different part of the soul that art is able to access, more so than any history book can. There is a strange desire not to talk about it, but a strange desire to always have it recognized. If you are not going to talk about it, someone needs to create art. In the Jewish Holocaust they have proven that healing through art works.”

Michele Rafic, left, and Sona Tatoyan

There were three Armenians aside from Greene reading various roles in “Forgotten Bread”. Tamar Vezirian appeared as River Maiden 3, Aunt and Vartouhi, while Sona Tatoyan was River Maiden 1 and the Abandoned Mother. Jacqueline Antaramian, who played the Matriarch, Mother and Wife (who went to America), enjoyed the brief rehearsals and the formal reading. “It created such happiness in my heart to be able to represent my own people in a play. I’ve been lucky to have a career, but it was also especially moving to be able to speak Armenian on stage. It was fun to say Armenian words to the American public,” Antaramian said. Aside from many theater roles, Antaramian has appeared on television in shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Third Watch,” “Law & Order” and “Diagnosis Murder.”

Jacqueline Antaramian, left, and Tamar Vezirian

Michele Rafic, who read the parts of the River Maiden, Halide and Nashalian, felt that Noor Theatre’s choice of Greene’s script for the first work in its new series meant it had a great deal of confidence in the quality of the play. Rafic, raised Coptic Orthodox, only vaguely knew about the Armenian Genocide before preparing for the reading: “I didn’t know the extent of it or when it occurred. I grew up in Long Island, and was born here in New York. I was shocked and disgusted, though I can’t say that I wasn’t surprised to find out about the Genocide.”

She knew Sevan and a number of other people involved in the production through Arab- American theater, including the Arab-American Comedy Festival. Rafic added that “Sevan is well known as an actor and a writer. He’s part of the 2010 Public Theater Emerging Writers Group. We all know him and look forward to his work.”

The Noor Theatre’s staged reading was of a preliminary version of the script. This provided an opportunity to see what works well in performance and what needs to be changed, so that no doubt future performances will be even more captivating. If parts of the play that were somewhat didactic were pared down, I believe the result would be a very powerful and educative play. Furthermore, as Greene points out, the piece “is written to be very visual and movement based. He hopes sufficient financial support can be found to allow a full production in the near future.

For more on Sevan Kaloustian Greene’s work, see www.sevangreene.com