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A new play focuses on two friends who survived the Armenian genocide
Over a decade ago a stranger approached playwright Joyce Van Dyke in the lobby of a theatre. "My name is Martin Deranian," the elderly gentleman said. "Your grandmother and my mother were best friends and they were deported together from their homeland in 1915. I think you should write a play about them."
Van Dyke agreed. After many years of development (a previous iteration was titled Deported) Daybreak is having its premiere at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. The show celebrates the real-life friendship of Varter Deranian (played by Tamara Sevunts) and Elmas Boyajian (called Victoria in the play and portrayed by Nicole Ansari), and how they survived the Armenian genocide.
In 1915, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire exterminated approximately 1.5 million Armenians -- an atrocity the Turkish government still denies ever happened. The men were massacred, while women and children were expelled from their homes and forced to march through the desert without food or water.
Growing up, Van Dyke knew that her grandmother had lost three children during the genocide, but not much else. "I didn't know any details because she never spoke about it," the playwright recalls. "I would sometimes ask her to talk about it but she could only say one or two words and she would come crashing to a halt." Because the events were too devastating for Boyajian to recount, Van Dyke decided they were probably too painful to try to write about. "I found it unbearable to immerse myself imaginatively in that story," she says.
But after chatting with Martin Deranian (who died in 2016 at age 94), Van Dyke realized there was an uplifting story here, too, about two women whose bond helped them weather terrible violence, the loss of their families and their eventual relocation to America. "There was this very powerful friendship between these two women," says Van Dyke, which made her realize the play could "be about something that was really creative and life-giving, and not just about the desperate, awful things that they had to endure."
That's why Daybreak begins in the U.S. while the genocide scenes unfold as fractured recollections. Often dramas about holocausts end when the characters escape or are liberated. But Van Dyke wanted audiences to see what happened to the survivors afterward, how they crossed the Atlantic and had more kids and kept going.
"I found these women so heroic, how they retained their sanity I do not know, but they did," she says. "I had a very strong sense from the beginning that the play needed to be kind of an arrow moving towards the future. The genocide -- however cataclysmic and enormous and life-changing and world-changing -- wasn't everything. It didn't end time. Life did, in various ways, go on."
So Daybreak is not a tragedy; it's a story of perseverance and healing. And Van Dyke thinks that's what makes it relatable beyond one historic event. Theatregoers of many ethnic backgrounds have told her the play reminds them of their own families. "They say, 'This is the story of my father who fought in World War II and could never ever talk to us about it,'" she says. "I deliberately designed the play to resonate with other kinds of genocides as well, and other kinds of circumstances where people experience PTSD."
Writing the play has also been therapeutic for Van Dyke. For years she felt the weight of her family's history, but working on Daybreak she met and befriended some Turkish people. "There was a huge sense of release to me to be able to meet Turks and talk to them," she says. "The play is my way of trying to make something beautiful out of something terrible."
Top image: Nicole Ansari and Tamara Sevunts in Daybreak. Photo by John Quincy Lee.