When Leslie Ayvazian’s “Nine Armenians” opened at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1996, New York Times critic Ben Brantley in an enthusiastic review noted the play’s light-hearted touch:
“This three-generation drama about an inescapable ethnic legacy has a high sugar content that may at first put off urbane audiences, who tend to prefer their fictional families on the dark and dysfunctional side,” he wrote.
The comic aspect of the play may surprise those in the Fresno area who have been partaking in a full slate of artistic experiences, of which “Nine Armenians” is a part, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Many of those observances have been solemn — understandably so.
The play, which includes a grandmother character (played by local theater veteran Tessa Cavalletto) who witnessed the genocide first-hand, isn’t an unrelenting outing. Food, family and more food are big ingredients.
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“It’s a funny play,” says Ayvazian, a professor at Columbia University, in a telephone interview from New York. “That’s the way I write. I include the comic and the tragic. ‘Nine Armenians’ has a really warm heart at its center.”
And, she adds with a laugh: “Also, Armenians in general have a sense of humor.”
Still, there’s grit underneath the comedy. There has to be. “Nine Armenians” springs from Ayvazian’s own upbringing in Manhattan. As a little girl she remembers a core of melancholy in terms of her family history, though it was never verbalized at the time.
Sometimes she’d catch her grandmother looking silently out the window, her gaze locked on something imperceptible. She seemed so far away.
“My grandparents had a sadness to them that was unspeakably deep,” Ayvazian says.
The family didn’t realize what her grandparents endured during the genocide until near her grandmother’s death, when she gave an “interview” to a family member. The memories were published in a 40-page pamphlet and distributed to the family.
Ayvazian — who along with her plays is known as an actress for her roles in the films “Working Girl,” “Regarding Henry” and the series “Law and Order: SVU” — isn’t surprised that her grandmother kept such secrets hidden.
“Some things are unspeakable,” she says. “It wasn’t just the devastation around them. It wasn’t just the gruesome murders. It was the lack of attention, the lack of help. The diminishment of the human spirit. You don’t want to share it with people you love. You don’t want to break their spirit.”
As a member of the third generation of Armenian survivors, she grew up in a world that simply didn’t know about — or acknowledge — the genocide. All she could sense was the sadness her grandmother carried, along with her sweetness. She felt it was something unique to her family.
Now she knows that many Armenian families share that historical sadness. To help begin to heal such wounds, a simple ingredient is time. Members of Ayvazian’s generation felt they could finally dive into those deeper, murky waters.
In some ways, “Nine Armenians” seems long ago to Ayvazian. But writing the play was a foundational moment for her. She couldn’t have written her new play, “15/15,” which she calls “brutal and funny,” if she hadn’t written “Nine Armenians” first.
The new title, which received a March reading in New York that featured Linda Lavin in a leading role, is set in a psychiatric ward. The larger theme is the kind of insanity that happens when a history is denied, she says. (It will receive a reading in a program titled “Staging the Un-stageable” April 28 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.)
For Ayvazian, coming to terms with the genocide is complicated. In New York she lives across the hall in her building from a Turkish woman originally from Istanbul.
They are friendly with each other. But her neighbor denies the genocide ever happened.
“She says she doesn’t know what I’m talking about,” Ayvazian says, “It’s a very delicate situation. She is my neighbor. We are all these generations down the line. She is a lovely person.”
This tug between past and present is a profound issue for Ayvazian. It hurts that her Turkish neighbor doesn’t seem to have anything invested in the issue at all.
It reminds Ayvazian of her childhood.
“The world that I was in didn’t know about the genocide,” she says.