Armani, Papasian Bring ‘Sojourn’ to New York


By Florence Avakian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — A man and a woman, representing the Armenian people and their cultural and survival spirit, came out on a small, lit stage. They warmly greeted a large audience in a darkened New York pub on January 18, repeating again and again, “Good day,” from a poem by Paruyr Sevak.

So started a fascinating dramatic journey with dozens of Armenian poetic masterpieces — some well known, many not, brought to life by theatrical artists Gerald Papasian and Nora Armani, on stage at Joe’s Pub, where they performed the play they wrote and have staged frequently, “Sojourn to Ararat.” The themes covered Armenian identity, homeland, daily chores, love, suffering, genocide, exile, dispersion and life in a new land. Interspersed throughout the 65-minute performance were vocalizations, and haunting songs and music by the legendary composers Komitas and Sayat Nova.

The props were minimal — one or two costumes, two chairs, two stacks of paper and an Armenian drum, a minimum of objects conveying maximum effect. The use of the paper became especially symbolic as page after page was crumpled and thrown on the floor, representing either piles of lentils, blazing fires or dead bodies, as well as what is left of a creative and vibrant culture. At the end of the play, the crumpled papers were gathered together and reassembled into the original two stacks, connoting renewal and rejuvenation.

Another symbolic gesture occurred when towards the conclusion of the presentation, all the props were piled together in one large heap and dragged around the stage signifying the leaving of their ancestral homeland, and starting life in a new and foreign country. But the yearning for the homeland never dies. This was delicately dramatized in Kuchak’s “I Was the Seedling,” where he notes, “I was the seedling of a peach, among stones and rock did I grow. They pulled me up, and transplanted me to a far-away alien row. They make fine sugar water and drench me from head to tow. Oh, carry me back to my homeland. Feed me on melting snow.”

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Through music, expert intonation, acting, interpretation and coordinated movement in a small space, the talented actors conveyed the story of the Armenian people from pagan times to the present. In reality, it could have been the timeless story of the human race.

In a telephone interview with actor Gerald Papasian, he related that his “dream with this production was to try to share, promote and make known Armenian treasures. Some are little jewels, and due to the translation (many done by the actors themselves), people who have no access because of language barriers can discover their beauty.”
At the beginning of this project, the motivation was “simply to recite our poems to people who are not aware of them,” Papasian noted. But after 200 to 300 poems, “we had to go through the elimination process to see what message we are conveying. Left with 40 to 50 poems, we listened and let the poets tell their own story. We deliberately avoided the time factor. Many of the poems relate loss, hope, Paradise Lost, Paradise Sought, themes that are universal.”

There were soul-searing poems. In Siamanto’s well known “The Dance,” 20 young Armenian virgins during the Genocide are forced to dance, lashed by a “bestial mob” who roar “You must dance.” As whips tear the flesh of their naked bodies, they finally collapse from exhaustion, and are doused with kerosene. “The singeing bodies danced and writhed towards death,” he writes, evoking a horrifying vision.

And who can ever forget Vahan Tekeyan’s soul-searing message in “We Shall Say to God,” in which he pleads, “Send us to hell. Send us to hell again. You made us know it alas, all too well. Save paradise for Turks. Send us to hell.”

But in a later poem, “Prayer on the Threshold of Tomorrow,” Tekeyan sensitively voices unquenchable hope. “Lord, we need your goodness this day. Impart your wisdom now, to this world, this tortured nothingness, you must not allow this tragic end. . . For our sakes, pour love into the hearts, and not sorrow in the mighty of today, and the strong of tomorrow. . .Let strife be brief. Make supreme justice triumph. . .Let peace reign. Tear down all fortresses and impregnable walls. And lance your wrath against the barricades of armored arrogance. Divide the world’s wealth evenly. Let crowds through the entrance to your pastures stampede at the last fall of the last tower. But, o Lord, let them break no tree, nor crush a single flower.”

A Beautiful Heritage

For Armenian youth, Papasian reiterated, “it is important to realize their heritage is interesting, entertaining and to be admired by non-Armenians. It makes you feel good to be a part of Armenian culture. It’s not only dhol, zourna. There is a beautiful heritage.”

And this legacy is probably best described in William Saroyan’s legendary and timeless words, “I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature unread, music unheard, their prayers no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread and water. Burn their homes and churches and see if they will not laugh and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.”

This powerful performance by two gifted actors was premiered at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in 1986. “We wanted to test it before non-Armenians who knew nothing about our history or culture,” Papasian noted. At that time, Howard Purdie wrote in The Scotsman that “it is almost an epic play… In this splendid show, the Armenians light up their homeland, and with it, all humanity.” This performance launched the whole project and led to many engagements.

In the intervening 24 years, the play has been performed more than 600 times to critical acclaim on four continents by the original cast of Papasian and Armani, as well as by other performers. It has played in the Smithsonian Institution, the Sydney Opera House, schools, open air spaces, camps, festivals, etc. This play has garnered multiple honors, including eight Drama Logue Critics’ Awards in 1988 and 1989, and won many accolades in Armenia.

Film and theater actress Nora Armani who divides her time between New York and Paris, was born in Egypt to Armenian parents. She has a master’s degree from the University of London, and received her training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil. Her career includes international appearances in plays by Pinter, Shaw, Shakespeare and many performances in Armenia. She has represented Armenia’s Ministry of Culture in Cinema, and has organized major film events in international film festivals. Her credits include published poems, short stories and essays, and appearances on French, British, American and Egyptian TV.

Papasian, based in Paris since 1993, was born in Egypt into a musical and artistic family. He has a master’s degree in directing from Yerevan’s State University’s Institute of Art and Theatre, and has studied at the famed Lee Strasburg Institute in Los Angeles. A well-known director and actor in Los Angeles, Paris, London, Cairo and Yerevan, he has excelled in works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Moliere and Gogol. His many translations include Arshag Tigranian’s “Anoush,” which he directed at the Michigan Opera Theater in 1981, and at the Detroit Opera Theatre in 2001. For his staging of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” he received the “Golden Star” by the California Motion Picture Council. He was recently awarded the coveted Movses Khorenatsi medal by Armenia’s president.

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