‘Night over Erzinga’ Comes to New York


From left, acting coach Lucyn Djirdjirian-Jamgotchian, actress Mari Bijimenian, Nayda Vosgeritchian and another supporter

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — “Night Over Erzinga,” a play by Adriana Sevahn Nichols, was presented at the Lark Play Development Center in midtown Manhattan on June 7-12. It was the first play to be created through Middle East America: A National New Plays Initiative, a program created in  2008 to support American playwrights of Middle Eastern descent through a $10,000 commission.

“Night Over Erzinga” is an intergenerational story that tells of the Armenian Genocide, its  aftereffects and immigrant life in America. The story is given a different twist and parallel intergenerational line through the Dominican husband of the American-born daughter of the

Armenian Genocide survivors. Three and even four generations appear, sometimes  simultaneously, on stage.

Ardavazt Khatchig Oghidanian fled Turkish persecution in Erzinga prior to the Genocide, and industriously working in America, began with various modest jobs, gradually improving his situation. He married Alice Hajian, a Genocide survivor from Shabin Karahisar, and had a  daughter, Aghig. Alice was unable to shake off the horrors she witnessed, such as the rape and murder of her younger 8-year-old sister, Anoushig, by Ottoman soldiers, and the butchery of the rest of her family. Despite all of his efforts, Ardavazt was unable to overcome the psychological burdens placed on her, as well as his own trauma caused by the disappearance of his family in  Erzinga. He harshly halted Alice’s efforts to explore dance as a means of self-expression. Alice descended into mental illness, and had to be institutionalized, with unfortunate results. Their daughter Aghig had to be placed in foster homes and orphanages for some six years.

Aghig as a young woman rejected her troubled Armenian identity, recasting herself as the  American Ava, of French ancestry. Rebelling against the excessive protectiveness of her father, Ava becomes a dancer, and chooses to marry a non- Armenian, Bienvenido, who, in a parallel with the Armenians, has come to the United States to escape persecution in the Dominican Republic.

Bienvenido has his name Americanized as Benny Ray, but resists becoming too distant from his Dominican culture. He helps bring Ava back together with her father, but, unable to remain faithful in his marriage, leaves Ava alone to raise their daughter, Estrella. When Ava asked her father how he managed to deal with his wife’s condition when Ava was a child, he finally revealed the cause of Alice’s mental distress. He had never explained to Ava/Aghig the torments her mother experienced, or the story of his own family, thinking that he could shield his daughter from this burden of pain. Remembering the past helped all generations of the family deal with  their lives.

The New York production of “Night Over Erzinga” was performed largely by a cast of non-Armenian background, with the exception of the 11-year-old Mari H. Bijimenian, who played the roles of young Aghig, Anoushig, Karine and Estrella. She is a member of Hye Bar, and has performed with Antranig Dance Ensemble. All cast members performed multiple roles in this “barebones” production, in which the minimal background and setting allowed for a focus on the story and text.

As a still-evolving work, perhaps it would not be fair to critique the play, but I can say that it has considerable depth. It tells its story powerfully and holds the interest of the audience. It tells a largely Armenian — and American — story which becomes a universal one. There are a few sections that might need shortening or editing. The pronunciation of Armenian names unfamiliar to most of the actors (and audience) was at times disconcerting to those who knew Armenian (e.g. Aghavni being repeatedly called “Agavni”), but on the other hand many actors did correctly speak various short phrases in Armenian, and one even recited the Lord’s prayer. Overall, the actors of varied backgrounds convincingly portrayed their respective characters.

Author Nichols explained for the Mirror-Spectator that the play was the result of her search for her identity. She has Armenian, Dominican and Basque ancestry, and the death of her grandfather Ardavazt when she was 8 years old ended her main contact with her Armenian past. She grew up in New York and Easter service at St. Vartan Cathedral and a few picnics were the extent of her immediate family’s Armenian involvement. On the other hand, she was surrounded with Dominicans because there was a large community in New York.

Nichols’ parents were performers — her mother danced and her father sang — therefore she grew up surrounded by passion for the arts.

She became a professional dancer, but an injury led her to acting. She had no intention of becoming a writer, but she had a life changing experience following 9/11, which a friend insisted that she write down. This led to her first play, Taking Flight, which she performed as a one-woman show. It went on to have seven productions, and won awards, launching her as a writer.

In 2004, she moved to Los Angeles. Living near Glendale, she had a lot of contact with Armenians, and little by little met Armenians in the arts. The Armenians kept on asking her when she would write something for them. She was invited as a performer and artist to an

Armenian International Women’s Association conference in 2007, and there without conscious forethought she blurted out that she would one day write a play honoring her Armenian  grandfather, Ardavazt Khatchig Oghidanian.

The next year she applied for and won the Middle East American Distinguished Playwright Award, which was developed by the Lark Play Development Center with its partners, Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco and the Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago. Lark Artistic Director John Clinton Eisner said that they defined the Middle East as widely as possible in order “to help support Americans in understanding more about the kinds of distinctions that exist between people in societies as different as Iraq, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia and Turkey where many cultures, traditions and religions have lived side by side for ages.” They wanted to allow artists who define themselves as diasporan voices the opportunity to “represent” their ethnic and cultural communities through good plays. When asked why Nichols’ “Night Over Erzinga” was chosen as the first winner of this award, Eisner responded that “it was the sweeping scope of the story and its particular grappling with change and survival that captured the committee’s imaginations.” Furthermore, “the fact that the play deals with survival of individuals and their historic values makes it a very human story and also one that feels particularly resonant to the struggles going on in the Middle East for territory, identity, power and righteousness.”

Nichols related that after receiving the award, which is a commission to write the play she proposed to them, she began her research. Her family members began to remember things that helped her create an anchor for the world of the story. She used part of the grant in 2009 to visit the Republic of Armenia, and said, “I saw the wishing trees all over Armenia, holding the wishes and prayers and dreams of the people who tied handkerchiefs to their branches or left an article of the people who had something to pray for.” This became an important symbolic element in her play.

She had the opportunity to spontaneously organize a drama workshop in Armenia for the disadvantaged children at the Orran Center. She said, “Eight to 15 year olds in a room is already a good challenge, but an even bigger challenge was that I didn’t speak Armenian, and they didn’t speak English. I asked one of my tour guides to translate and we had an incredible time. It was heartbreaking because at the end, one of the little girls, as I was saying goodbye, asked ‘when are you coming back again?’ My heart broke because I couldn’t say when. …When my play is up and running I want to go back to Armenia for a longer time and do things like another workshop at Orran.”

After the Republic of Armenia, Adriana went with Armen Aroyan to Western Armenia, in present-day Turkey, to visit her ancestral villages. She saw the bridge of Kemakh, off which the Erzinga Armenians were thrown in 1915. She exclaimed, “The land around Shabin Karahisar was so mystical and biblical that you couldn’t speak. Nature was so powerful that it demanded your full attention. For me to have a chance to just quietly experience the beauty and to know that that was where part of my family came from made me very proud.”

Adriana began a class in Los Angeles to learn Armenian, but this required much time so she decided to first finish the play and then learn the language. She was fortunate to have learned Spanish fluently from her Dominican grandmother as a child.

As the play took shape, Adriana was crossing beyond the actual family story. She said she felt she needed to ask permission from her family members to have the freedom to “theatricalize the truth, to make it come to life in such a way that people will sit in the dark and come on this journey with you…In writing this play, I had to make a ritual of this story. I needed the blessing of my family to be able to take all of the ingredients and make something new of it.” She initially “did not set out to tell a story of a genocide. I set out to tell the story of a family.” In this way, it connects with people of all kinds of different ethnic backgrounds.

The play continues to evolve, as does Adriana’s knowledge of the past. Each reading or workshop allows her to tweak various elements. There was an initial reading in spring 2009 in Chicago, even before the creation of a formal play, and the first workshop took place in November 2010 in San Francisco. The casts change in the different productions, with the exception of the lead actress Juliette Tanner, playing Alice as well as Jan. The plan is for the play to be developed by the Lark, and the two collaborating theaters in San Francisco and Chicago to also produce it. Afterwards, Night over Erzinga will be submitted to theaters nationally and  internationally “to see what life the play has,” as Adriana puts it. She hopes that a Los Angeles production, where there are so many Armenians, and where she made the initial promise to write the play, can take place eventually.

Meanwhile, Adriana just found out where her Armenian grandmother was buried in the US. Nobody had gone to her funeral except her grandfather. As Adriana continues to work on the play, to have its world premiere this fall, she occasionally takes breaks to work on a new play, a romantic comedy called “Running on Rollerskates.”