Uncovering Paradoxes: Playwright Kelly Stuart’s Narrative Journey

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By Gabriella Gage

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Kelly Stuart is not only a playwright; she is a fearless storyteller who immerses herself in the complexities of the human condition. Along with teaching courses at Columbia’s School for the Arts (SoA), Stuart has traveled to Turkey nine times to explore various facets of life there — culture, music, struggle and hope.

The Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance (ADAA) recently awarded Stuart the third Biennial William Saroyan Prize for Playwriting for “Belonging to the Sky,” a lyrical duet of monologues by Sabiha Gokçen (Ataturk’s adopted daughter) and assassinated journalist Hrant Dink. The $10,000 grand prize was announced and presented at ADAA’s awards event on December 8 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Stuart’s own creative journey and career as a playwright began at the University of Laverne in California where she studied music and theater. As a student, she had the opportunity to participate in the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival and assisted Cuban-American playwright, Irene Fornes, who would prove a great inspiration to Stuart as a young playwright.

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“[Fornes’] technique seemed to be about the freedom of the imagination, and this is something that has stayed with me. What I got from her plays, and her way of working, is that the imagination is the most dangerous thing to authoritarian systems, it’s really the most subversive and powerful thing we have,” said Stuart.

For Stuart, plays offer a medium for not just exploring life, but also the narrative paradoxes that exist in human experience. She explained, “When I hear two people tell conflicting versions of a story, a light goes on. It is as if there are two completely different versions of reality. The wonderful thing about theatre, is you can put these two versions of reality on stage together, they can both ‘exist’ in the same space, and the audience can experience this paradox. It doesn’t mean we agree with both sides, but we can find an understanding of them,” she said.

Stuart’s plays include “Shadow Language,” “Demonology,” “Life of Spiders” and the internationally-produced “Mayhem.”

Stuart’s extensive travels and research brought her to Turkey, where she has experienced stories of hope and stories of oppression. Stuart describes the Turkish history she immersed herself in as “very complicated.” “This experience for me was juxtaposed by how beautiful Anatolia was, how generous people were… even the poorest people would insist that they share their last bit of food or tea with a visitor,” Stuart said. “I remember seeing a wedding in the streets of Diyarbakir. People had nothing, but they were dancing for hours and we were just passing by and they pulled us into the circle to dance with them.”

Stuart has even picked up some of the Turkish language as a function of her extensive artistic work there. “I can speak enough Turkish to get myself in trouble, and not enough Turkish to get out of trouble,” she mused. Stuart also speaks a little Kurdish, in addition to reading French and Spanish.

During her travels, Stuart encountered several Armenians who shared their own stories. “Diyarbakir was a very Armenian city, and it still retains the architecture and influences — I met people who told me ‘I am Armenian, but I grew up with Kurdish culture,’” she said. “I met people who said they felt guilty for what had happened to the Armenians, who felt a huge sense of remorse.”

Stuart also visited Van and described the city as “one of the darkest places I had seen.” While visiting an archaeological museum there, she discovered a section of the museum devoted to “the genocide of the Armenians against the Turks,” which contained displays of skulls and signs proclaiming that the skulls belonged to Turkish villagers killed by Armenians.

“It was such a revolting display — so disrespectful to the dead. I did not know what to do with my anger, or how to mask it,” said Stuart. She would come to realize that many of those living in Turkey have to live among such violent tributes and are subjected to these dark narratives.

She received a travel grant from the Jerome Foundation to write about Kurdish Dengbêj singers, focusing on the role of language and music in Anatolia. The difficulty of constructing narratives that truly embodied the people and experiences she witnessed in Turkey were a challenge for Stuart. “I had almost given up on theatre because I didn’t feel I could translate the experiences I was having onto the stage.”

While traveling with dramaturg Amy Wegener and researching for “Shadow Language,” Stuart visited Diyarbakir, Bingol and Dersim. “I had become interested in the history of Dersim — a place that Ataturk had once said was ‘A boil that must be lanced.’ It was once populated by Armenians as well as Alevi Kurds […].” It was this “continuing obsession” with Dersim that eventually led Stuart to write “Belonging to the Sky.”

Stuart said she was determined to understand why the people of Dersim had migrated to an Alevi village. It was during this search that an unnamed Turkish historian introduced Stuart to a story she hadn’t heard before. The story was of Ataturk adopting an Armenian orphan named Hatun. It was Stuart’s first exposure to the history of Gokçen, the famous Turkish female fighter pilot celebrated for her bombing of Dersim, and popularized by Dink, prior to his death in 2007.

“I became haunted by Sabhia Gokçen’s story — and reading Hrant Dink’s account of her life she embraces Turkish nationalism completely, she bombs the region of her own people, she could never show people her Armenian identity, and yet she knew who she was, and even secretly gave money to a nephew who came to find her from Lebanon in the years when she was an old lady,” said Stuart. “She was the icon of Turkish nationalism, but she was ‘the enemy.’ I wondered what did she have to do, to keep the grief and ‘the enemy’ of her own history at bay, in order to reap the benefits of being part of the new Turkey.”

As to the narrative connection between Gokçen and Dink, Stuart said, “These two people never met, but their stories were interwoven, and so my play is each of them telling their story, and little by little beginning to recognize the presence of the other.”

For Stuart, this dedication to Gokçen and Dink’s stories has made receiving the ADAA’s Saroyan Prize for “Belonging to the Sky” all the more meaningful.

“It was incredibly moving, a really important thing for me. I’ve been writing about this thing that for most Americans is quite obscure, but I have to write this, and I want Americans to understand the situation — in a human way — because a change in our policies could help the situation of people a great deal.”

She added, “Right now we are supporting the most oppressive policies, the jailing of thousands of people for thought crimes, the absurd denial of history and the facts of the Genocide.”

According to Stuart, the presence of Armenian community members and families of Genocide survivors at the ADAA ceremony was equally rewarding. “Usually when I present my work I have so much explaining to do to contextualize what I am writing about but the night of the ADAA event, I spent the entire evening listening to people’s family stories, and there was nothing I had to explain, they understood what I was writing about, and even though I am not Armenian, I understood them,” she said.

Stuart teaches playwriting in the MFA Theatre Program at the SoA. “Our students are incredibly talented, they’re an inspiration,” she said. “They are also very diverse and they teach me as much as I teach them.”

Stuart is currently working on several projects. “I’m writing a kind of memoir/theatre piece about my travels in Turkey that uses a lot of the video I have shot there, and I’m working on a new play.” She has recently worked on several short digital video pieces. “I’ve made several short pieces documenting music and culture — Kurdish music, Alevi music and right now I’m working on more ‘New York’ pieces that are both narrative and abstract.” She added, “I’m planning to do more of a narrative feature this summer — a comedy about a man who finds a lost cat.”

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