Theatre—becoming an actor—saved my life as a teenager. I am Armenian, Dominican, and Basque; I grew up feeling like an outsider in each culture, as my single mom strove to raise an American daughter who could straighten her hair and fit in. And I was given a narrative of omission to ensure that I did. But theatre gave me a place, a community, and a way to find my voice. What I did not know at the time was how the loss of language, land, and ancestral memory that I carried in my cells had so much to do with being the granddaughter of Armenian genocide survivors.
In 2007, I was invited by Joan Agajanian Quinn to be a guest speaker on a panel for the Armenian International Women’s Association. In the midst of talking about the journey of creating my one-woman show Taking Flight, produced by Center Theatre Group, a woman shouted out, “When are you going to write something for us? You are Armenian!”
Never, I thought to myself, because I don’t know enough—but I heard the words, “Soon, very soon,” leap out of my mouth.
Then, for the first time, I found myself telling my own family story in public. My grandfather, Ardavazt Oghidanian, had been sent from Erzinga, in present-day Turkey, to Worcester, Mass., in 1913, for safekeeping, to avoid the horrors befalling Armenian boys conscripted into the Turkish army. Did my great-grandparents know, when they sent their eldest and only son so far away, what was coming? Had they been warned by Turkish friends? A year and a half later, in 1915, my grandfather’s village was burned to the ground, and our entire family was massacred, along with 1.5 million other Armenians.
“Erzinga!” a woman in the crowd cried out. “Almost no one survived from there.”
Another shouted: “Have you heard of the Bridge of Kemagh? Where the Euphrates flows between two mountains, outside of Erzinga, where the people were taken, tied together, and thrown into the river?”
Story after story erupted, and the formality of the panel gave way to a village gathering of memory, survival stories, and grief. Beneath the stories, I heard a plea, if not a mandate, that I reckon with my own Armenian heritage. As the granddaughter of Armenian genocide survivors, I was being asked to write something on behalf of healing, repair, restoration—and reminded that I carried a responsibility as an artist to give something on behalf of all who perished and on behalf of all who survived.
In 2008, I won the first Middle East America Playwright award, which brought with it a commission to write a play about my Armenian ancestors and the effect the genocide had on three generations. I began interviewing all living relatives to record the stories, but all I could glean was a handful of facts. During a playwriting intensive with Anne García-Romero, I was given a María Irene Fornés exercise that opens a portal for a character to summon the writer, instead of the writer creating a character. And as I began to write…a woman in a white nightgown scrubbing an immaculate linoleum floor appeared; she was screaming about a river of blood.
It was my Armenian grandmother, Alice Oghidanian, whom I had never met. My grandmother Alice had had a nervous breakdown when my mother was two. Following radical shock treatment, she never again recognized any of her children. Now, through the gift of Fornés’s exercise, I had a way to hear my silenced grandmother’s voice, her story. Our collaboration had begun.
In 2009, I had filled several notebooks with fragments of memory from my mother and aunts, a raft of research, and writing exercises. But I needed to stand on my homeland to write this play—to see, smell, taste what both of my grandparents were forced to leave behind. My husband, Jonathan, and I planned a week in Armenia and two weeks traveling with Armen Aroyan, who had been taking Armenians of the diaspora home to their ancestral villages in Turkey for the past 25 years.
As the pilot announced we were beginning our descent into Yerevan, people began to hover in the aisles, lurching from side to side trying to see out the windows. I wondered why they weren’t taking their seats. I raised my window shade, and there she was: our beloved Mt. Ararat, Masis, shimmering in her white snow-capped gown. I wept at the sight of her majesty, her power. She welcomed me, and all of the family that I carried with me, to Armenia.
As we toured the country I was awestruck by the beauty of the wishing trees, as witnesses carrying the prayers of the people, and by the songs in the stones in Carahunge, a rock formation that predates Stonehenge. We danced, we feasted, and were embraced by extraordinary people who received us as family in the short time we shared.
The day we went to the Genocide Memorial we were the only ones there. A single circle of daisies surrounded an eternal flame. I walked the circumference in search of the ritual, or the wail, the cracking open of my heart. Lost, I sat down on the cool gray stone with my notebook opened to a blank page, when several dozen schoolchildren came bounding down the stairs in their stiff Sunday shoes, giggling and holding hands. Their teachers, while shushing them, arranged them in a perfect circle around the daisies. This spontaneous garland became a living testimony of survival: the promise of tomorrow. I now knew that whatever I would write must carry this hope, this new life, forward.
We then traveled to Turkey to meet with Armen and 20 other Armenians on our pilgrimages. There were daily homecomings as we traveled hundreds of miles across Eastern Turkey, stopping at each village where any of us had a connection. I felt such familiarity. This land was not foreign to me. I placed wildflowers into the Euphrates at the Bridge of Kemagh as the group sang in Armenian, the warm water reaching back to this granddaughter, and to the women who had called forth the story. My family was here. Although there were no standing structures for me to enter, I felt the homecoming in the way the elements responded each time I arrived at an ancestral village. Grandmother and grandfather clouds holding hands as we left Erzinga; the hailstorm in Kighi; the rainbow over my grandmother Alice’s birthplace, Shabinkarahissar.
It is April 20, 2015. The pilot announces our descent into Yerevan. I lift my shade. It has been seven years. I weep again at the sight of Mt. Ararat. I am here to see my play, Night Over Erzinga, performed in Armenian for the commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the genocide. The play’s director and translator, Vartan Garniki, greets us, along with the artistic director of the Yerevan State Youth Theater, Hakob Ghazanchyan, and his wife, Larisa, who plays my grandmother Alice, and donor Vartan Andreasyan; they hand me the largest bouquet of wild lilacs I have ever seen. We are taken to a restaurant around the corner from the theatre and served a feast at what is now 8 in the morning, Los Angeles time. We try to keep up with the copious toasts of vodka, and the translations get shorter and stranger as the night goes on, with more laughter and hand-slapping than sense.
Bloated, happy, and very tipsy, we sleep for three hours before the rooster crows, the church bells ring, and Mt. Ararat greets me outside the window of our hotel. I stare at her in the pink glow of the sunrise, thinking about each company of artists, their contributions, their love, who helped this play grow, from the 2009 Writer’s Lab at the Mark Taper, to the numerous workshops at the Lark, to the productions at Golden Thread in San Francisco, Silk Road Rising in Chicago, and Hamazkayin in New Jersey. I can feel them all here. I think about the year and a half that I collaborated with my Armenian director, Vartan, as he poured his heart into translating not only the words but the soul of my play into the language of our ancestors. It was his unstoppable passion and vision that found the way to bring it here to Armenia. And I think of my mother, Jan, a motherless daughter who saw each presentation in every city, taking me aside, after seeing all six performances at the Lark, and, in a barely audible whisper saying, “Thank you for introducing me to my mother.”
The city of Yerevan is covered in a blanket of spring flowers, planted everywhere for the commemoration. Symbols of life to honor the dead. To welcome them. I join Vartan and the set designer, Vartivar Keshishian, who has just flown in from New Jersey to do a national television interview, wearing a stylish shawl and a pair of earrings, a little too heavy, that I bought at the flea market. The hosts are good-natured about the continuous translation necessary, as I speak no Armenian. They are moved by the story told in the play, and by the process of its coming into being. As the interview comes to a close, one of the hosts takes my hand and in my language he says, “Welcome home, Adriana.”
It is the day of the opening, and Jonathan and I decide to go to the Genocide Memorial. Torrential rain beats down on the roof of our taxi, a foreign sound to me now, living as I do in drought-stricken L.A. We get out and find the entrance blocked by uniformed police. We join a long line of other Armenians, all carrying flowers. Only international journalists, with passes and cameras, can enter at this time. After an hour in the rain, we are allowed to ascend the hill and descend the stairs to the flame. I find a space to kneel so I can lay my flowers on top of the offerings already there, when a woman, holding a microphone, kneels next to me and asks if I speak English and if it would be okay to ask what this moment means to me.
I tell her it is everything. Writing a play has taken me on a journey to heal something very deep that ruptured my family 100 years ago, and in a few hours I would see it, performed in Armenian, onstage in Yerevan. Through the power of theatre, I tell her, my family was finally coming home. The journalist, moved, thanks me. “Where are you from?” I ask. She looks down, “You will hate me if I tell you: Turkey.” I am stunned. I put my arms around her and hold her. “I don’t hate you.” She continues, “I know it will never be enough, but I want to say on behalf of my people…I am so sorry…I am sorry. It is so difficult. It is why I am here. To write about this.” I can see the pain in her face—the weight she, too, is carrying. As a child I was told that the Turks were barbarians, savages. But as I stand here, in 2015, heart to heart, belly to belly, womb to womb, with this woman, all that I feel is love.
Entering the theatre, walking up the long marble staircase, to the lobby filled with busts and paintings of artists that had once graced this stage on Moscovian Street, I am humbled by the legacy that Night Over Erzinga has been welcomed into. I greet Vartan and Vartivar; we hold a place for our composer, Tigran Nanian, still in New York, while my mother is lighting candles in Los Angeles. Jonathan and I take our seats in the front row, and as the music begins and the house lights go to half I am overwhelmed with emotion. The curtain rises, and as the first words are spoken I can feel it—the spirit, the duende. It is as if the play was always meant to be spoken in Armenian. The actors grab me by the heart and don’t let me go.
I am no longer the playwright. I am a granddaughter watching my family story. I am home.