Van Dyke’s New Play Focuses Layered Lens on Genocide


Joyce Van Dyke

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — About a third of the audience of 80 or so who came to hear a staged reading of “Deported: A Dream Play,” by Joyce Van Dyke were Armenian. And this should be viewed as a good thing by the Armenian community; it means the message about the Genocide is reaching those who still don’t know.

The play, Van Dyke’s newest work, was given a barebones presentation on Saturday in a rehearsal space at the Stan Calderwood Pavilion on Tremont Street in Boston, and sponsored by the Boston Center for the Arts and The Publick Theatre Boston. Directed by Judy Braha, it will receive a full production next year at the Modern Theater, also in Boston, and will run from March 15 to April 8.

Seven actors, dressed soberly in black and reading from scripts, played 22 parts, and Saturday night’s presentation lacked many ancillary elements — music, dancing, video — that will be part of next year’s full-blown run. The absence of these elements was compensated for by the reading of stage directions by Ali Kerestly.

Although Van Dyke, of course, controls and shapes the final form and content of the play, “Deported” is still a work in progress and it is very much a result of collaboration. The story focuses on the memories of the Genocide of two women, Victoria, played by Bobbie Steinbach, and her friend, Varter, played by Paula Langton.

The character of Victoria is based on Van Dyke’s grandmother, while Varter is based on another real person — the mother of Martin Deranian of Worcester, who has made his own contribution to Armenian-American history in his book, Worcester Is America: The Story of the Worcester Armenians: The Early Years. In real life, Deranian’s grandmother and Van Dyke’s mother were best friends.

Deranian’s research on his mother’s life contributed important content to the play and Van Dyke credits him with substantial assistance. The play has also undergone a process of revisions and changes in response to workshops with actors and the director. Van Dyke says that further changes may be in the works before the play is performed at the Modern next year.

What is unique about Van Dyke’s treatment of the Genocide is the multiplicity of points of view that she develops throughout the course of the play, which covers several decades. Victoria, who lived through the Genocide, lost her children and husband and was deported to Syria, remains the focus of the play from 1915 until the present. But Turkish characters also play a part, notably Zulal, a Turkish woman, who offered to save Victoria’s baby and the Turkish sergeant from Ourfa, who protects Varter.

Van Dyke also introduces the issue of how the Genocide is treated differently from the Holocaust with the depiction of a young, Jewish reporter, who comes to interview Victoria in her old age.

Van Dyke touches on feminist themes, especially in the portrayal of Victoria’s marriage to Harry, a gruff misogynist, who prefers “silence and obedience” from his wife, in contrast to her outspoken and assertive demeanor.

The later scenes of the play are set in California, because Victoria, who carries the play, is able to emigrate from Syria and remarry, to Harry, who arrived in the United States prior to the Genocide.

When finally, there is talk of reconciliation, and the members of a younger generation, both Armenian and Turkish, seem eager and open to finally bridging the gap of two terrible histories (a young Turkish man comments cheerfully, “I have an Armenian dentist”), Victoria says adamantly, “You’re not going to say ‘reconcile,’ you’re not going to say ‘forgive.’ What reconciliation?”

And Victoria’s viewpoint must be taken with utmost seriousness, because, for her, it is impossible to erase the past. The damage and the horror were too great. Her feelings remain, although the play ends on a hopeful note. “Our work begins,” are the final words, and stage directions note that the stage is showered in rose petals.

It is not possible to give a full account of all that is present in this play. For one thing, it was put on with no props, the actors simply read their lines and there were visual elements that would play an important part in the complete production, such as a red, beaded curtain. These props and videos would all round out what is a complex and many-faceted approach to the Armenian experience of the Genocide.

Audiences already familiar with Van Dyke’s work, “A Girl’s War” and “The Oil Thief” will want to see this production and bring their friends, both Armenian and non-Armenian.

Van Dyke is now working on a new play, which, she says, has nothing to do with Armenian themes.

As a Huntington Playwright Fellow, Van Dyke won the Elliott Norton Award in 2009 for outstanding new script, and has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Her rising reputation should ensure the growing audience she deserves.