‘Women of Ararat’ Gains Ground

0
0

By Tom Vartabedian

BOSTON— Playwright Judith Boyajian Strang-Waldau has made both Genocide recognition and highlighting resilient women who survived its atrocities part of her mission. No one seems more aware than Strang-Waldau that a journey towards any destination begins with a single step. In her case, the steps have been giant ones.

Last March she conducted a reading for the first act of her play, “Women of Ararat,” sponsored by the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA). The cast included several Armenian actors from Greater Boston and New York including Nancy Tutunjian Berger, June Murphy Katz, Judy Davis, Jennifer Guzelian Flanagan, Joy Renjilian and Sofie Refojo.

“The result was unexpectedly moving when I heard my words making people laugh and cry,” she recalled. “The audience was mixed with both Armenians and non-Armenians. Although Armenians have heard these stories before, they cried along with those who were hearing them for the first time.”

Three Armenian women approached the playwright after the reading to thank her for finally giving them a voice. It made an impact, even with those familiar with the Armenian story.

“I still can’t read the end of Act 2 without crying,” Strang-Waldau revealed. “It is written in the voice of my grandmother whom I adored. When I think about what she lived through in the old country and when she came to America, I am astonished by her continued strength and loving nature, despite what she saw happen all around her. This play is dedicated to my grandmothers from whom I was given such a rich heritage. They lived in Watertown.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Strang-Waldau resides in metro west Boston with a husband, three dogs and  cat. She majored in piano at the Boston Conservatory of Music, securing degrees in vocal/opera performance from the University of Southern California and Arts Administration from New York University. She has worked in marketing and development at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, along with the Olympia Dukakis’ Whole Theater in Montclair, NJ. At the New England Conservatory of Music, she served as director of Institutional Development for the Preparatory School.

Currently, Strang-Waldau gives private piano and voice lessons in Wellesley and Natick and will begin a teaching position in Sherborn this coming fall. She also runs an annual scholarship competition for advanced high school musicians through the Harvard Musical Association.

Strang-Waldau is proud of her ethnicity. She is 100 percent Armenian — the product of Genocide survivors from Mersin, Turkey — and was christened at St. James Church in Watertown. She has been a church soloist and was asked to sing a service during which the lay preacher gave a sermon on the Armenian Genocide.

The preacher had recently read Samantha Power’s book titled, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” and delivered an impassioned homily on what the Armenian people experienced.

Strang-Waldau was deeply moved that a non-Armenian could be so sensitive to this period of terrorism and reopened a deep wound that was a critical part of her family’s history rarely discussed in her presence.

“I remember during President Obama’s first term how he addressed the topic of Genocide acknowledgement with the Turkish government and was unable to change their position,” she pointed out. “This ‘amnesia’ within the Turkish government is horrifying to the Armenian people. I decided that I wanted to find a way to honor the centennial.”

“Women of Ararat” is a full-length drama that spans roughly 10 years from 1965-75. The opening scenes are based upon the playwright’s childhood. She represents the fifth generation of women living on her maternal side.

The play was written to commemorate the 100th anniversary to be held April, 2015. Strang-Waldau says she hopes the play will educate those who are unaware of this infamous period in history and make us more responsible to those around the globe who are victims of political injustice.

The play is about a family of Armenian women who’ve survived the Genocide and the great-granddaughter who interprets their condition in a more modern and global world.

It is a story of how women love, care for one another and cope with the aftermath of war and inhumanity.

“Women of Ararat” is also about secrets, not thoughtlessly made, but done so to spare a child her innocence and help survivors stop reliving their excruciating past.

Although containing tragic content, it also shows the humorous and light-hearted ways the women relate to one another. It is about women, written by a woman and is based on humanity rather than being a history lesson. There is one male in the cast and it is his character that brings tension into their protected world.

“I grew up with a great-grandmother and two grandmothers whom I visited regularly,” she said. “They didn’t like to speak about what happened during the years they were forced to leave Turkey and wandered until they made it to the US. My paternal and maternal grandmothers had very different stories that are relived in the play. I was a young adult before I was told what actually happened to them.”

“Women of Ararat” was also selected for a reading in the “Voices 7 Women Playwrights” festival at Wellesley College where it attracted considerable interest.

“The most moving part was when three Armenian women in the audience thanked me for giving them a voice,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful gift.”

Her research included all Peter Balakian’s books, including Armenian Golgotha. She continued her research at Ellis Island and reading everything she could find online. Discussions with family members and friends were replete with feedback.

A visit to Turkey was made last summer, spending time in Istanbul where the Genocide is still considered as “The Armenian Problem.”

“It was clear that the attitude toward our history had not changed,” said Strang-Waldau. “I also spent time in Mersin where my grandmothers lived. It was no longer the beautiful seaside town filled with fruit trees, rather a sprawling Mediterranean city of high hotels and condominiums.”

The playwright brought along copies of family photographs to bury there, but found no space in the cemetery. Instead, she took the photos to a beach where her grandmothers may have played and let them drift out to sea.

“I’m very fortunate to have been guided by many theater professionals in the Boston area who’ve helped me through the playwriting process,” she says. “I’ve worked with local playwrights, directors, theater administrators and actors, all of whom have given a great deal of their time to this project as they value its importance.”

A most unusual experience occurred during a writing class she was taking to develop the play. Strang-Waldau was in a class of 10 people and upon being introduced found herself seated next to a Turk from Istanbul.

As it turned out, the student was a Turkish-Jew whose grandfather had been unjustly imprisoned by the Turkish government.

“After reading the script, he suggested that I produce it in Turkey since it reveals the deep emotional impact of the Turkish government’s actions on the Armenian families they persecuted,” said Strang-Waldau. “Meeting my Turkish colleague in my first playwriting class could be none other than divine intervention. He was more than supportive. He was encouraging.”

Strang-Waldau is looking to produce her work throughout various parts of the country during the 2014-2015 theater season. She said she hopes to attract sponsors either through a centennial committee or an independent producer. She is prepared to meet her obstacles and secure the necessary media hype surrounding it.

“Boston can boast a population of extremely well-educated residents,” she pointed out. “However, I often meet people who’ve never heard of the Armenian Genocide. Once they learn, they are not only appalled by the history but that the Turkish government has not acknowledged their wrong-doing.”

Looking back over her life, Strang-Waldau never imagined writing a play as a musician and music teacher. Through it, she says she is hoping to create a level of understanding and empathy that will motivate people to assist us in our work — and have this historical atrocity acknowledged by the Turkish government.

“Choosing to write a tragic historical drama that focuses upon people I love was an enormous undertaking for a first-time playwright,” she feels. “This is the story I most wanted to tell. My hope is that people of all nationalities will want to listen.”

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: