NEW YORK — Few non-Armenians at the November 6 performance of Anush Aslibekyan’s 2015 play “Mercedes and Zaruhi” had ever heard of the nerkaght or repatriation movement. In the late 1940s, the soviet government urged Armenians from all over the diaspora to return to their supposed homeland and join the “communist paradise” that awaited them. Similar appeals went out from other soviet republics with important diasporas such as Ukraine. The Armenian call was perhaps the most urgent since that nation had been depleted of more than half its population during the Armenian Genocide and then WWII.
What awaited the repatriated Armenians was far from paradise. For most, it turned out to be a living hell. Some 200,000 Armenians — many of them repats — were imprisoned in Soviet Armenia or sent to die or languish in Siberian gulags or labor camps, a fate shared by writers such as Zabel Yessayan, Gurgen Mahari and Vahan Totovents. Worse yet, they were treated by “native” Armenians with suspicion and jealousy, and referred to by the derogatory slur “akhpar,” a deformation of the Armenian word “yekhpayr” or brother.
Nora Armani has done a splendid job of translating and adapting the original Armenian play to an extended hour monologue that showcases the history, and Armani’s talents with equal vigor. She also produced and directed the play, wearing many hats equally well. In this version, we meet Zaruhi, one of two Armenian sisters from the city of Thessaloniki, Greece, as she is about to board a ship to head for her new life in Yerevan. Zaruhi is an idealist, a true patriot who blindly believes the propaganda that the communist government has entrapped other diasporans with as well. She leaves behind her sister Mercedes, who is more circumspect and warns her — who leaves a beautiful cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean for some ramshackle new city in the Caucasus? God knows what awaits you, she seems to be warning Zaruhi.
And she is spot on. Zaruhi arrives in Gyumri — Leninakan at the time — and is picked up at the train station by long-lost relatives. Armani deliciously delivers a scene where on her first night there, they serve a glutinous, yellowish cow’s head for dinner. She lies down sick from the experience — harbingers of catastrophes to come.
Zaruhi becomes a seamstress and begins to prosper through her hard work, but a series of disasters soon unfold. She soon faces betrayal from her native Armenian husband who abandons her for a Russian wife in Russia — still common practice today in Armenia. She is then betrayed by a tenant who is a party apparatchik and loses her home. Her daughter abandons her and her disabled son when she gets married. Despite all these trials and tribulations, the play ends on a note of hope in the 1990s. Independent Armenia, along with Zaruhi herself, seems to have survived an earthquake, a war, and economic collapse.
The multitalented Armani has made performing at the United Solo Theatre a yearly happening. It is a prestigious showcase and this year Armani was on her mark, translating and adapting the original play into English, and then producing and directing the performance. Says Armani: “The full multi-actor play by Anush Aslibekyan exists and I played the lead in it in Armenia, in the Armenian original. This solo version is slightly different from the full play. My work entailed translating the solo play and adapting it by adding some material, to make it clearer to a non-initiated, non-Armenian audience.” Armani also recorded her own voice in Western Armenian in the recorded segment meant to be Mercedes.