“Night over Erzinga” tells the story of a family with a painful secret that engulfs three generations. The production shifts between the past and the present, with many of the actors taking on several roles, to describe the impact that the Armenian Genocide has had on survivors and their descendants. Playwright Adriana Sevahn Nichols describes the play as “a story about how we heal and eventually surrender to embrace the past, in order to live a more whole future.”
Nichols says she was inspired to write the play after learning about the gaps in her own family history. “My mother is Armenian, but she was not raised by her biological parents,” she tells the Weekly. After Nichols’ grandparents moved to the United States, after narrowly surviving the Armenian Genocide, her grandmother began to experience post-traumatic stress disorder, eventually ending up in an institution where she was given shock treatments. “From that point on, she never recognized her children, so they were placed in foster care, as the state did not believe my grandfather could take care of them on his own,” Nichols says.
‘The memories that I have of my grandpa are very warm and wonderful. He had an incredible heart—a petite man with big hands full of muscled love—and he made the best dolma,” the playwright jokes. “I wanted to understand how he could lose two families, in one lifetime, and not lose his heart,” she adds. The play itself is partially set in Erzinga (in present-day Turkey), where Nichols’ grandfather was from.
Three years ago, Nichols joined one of Armen Aroyan’s heritage tours to historic Armenia to conduct research for the play. “When I put my hands into the Euphrates River, there was something that reached back to me…a sense of peace and a knowing that I’d come home. It was a kind of baptism and I sensed that I now had the right to write this play.”
“I feel like when an elder dies, a library burns, so I had to get to this story on the page before it was too late,” she says. “I returned very different—I interviewed my remaining relatives. Sadly, my grandpa didn’t talk much about the past, so very little was known. I thought, how do I take these kernels of a story and grow them into something meaningful?”
“At some point during the writing process, I felt like something else was moving my pen, writing things I could not have known. The beauty of it was when I went to fact check, and they would check out. It was a sign that this story was being told from a much deeper place,” reveals Nichols.
“This journey has brought me to a very profound relationship with my ancestors, who I now know are my guardians and guides, and are no longer just faces in a photos album, of a distant past.”
Despite the “sorrowful yet beautiful” nature of the story, as one critic put it, Nichols assures that there is a lot of humor in the play. “When we laugh, we are able to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and the power of love, to overcome everything we Armenians have had to endure, and continue to thrive.”
Ultimately, the play was commissioned by the Middle East America: A National New Plays Initiative, which was designed to encourage the development of Middle Eastern-American playwrights and plays through the partnership of tri-coastal theatres: San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, where the play premiered last year for a successful run; New York’s Lark Play Development Center; and Chicago’s Silk Road Rising, where it is highlighting now.
“Night over Erzinga” has premiered in two major cities thus far, and Nichols hopes for more presentations throughout the country. In particular, she has her heart set on bringing the play to Massachusetts, where her grandparents lived, and which is home to the oldest Armenian-American diaspora community; and to Los Angeles, home of a sizable Armenian community that embraced and pushed Nichols to go forth with the play, and without which “none of this would’ve happened.”
“Night over Erzinga” will be playing in Pierce Hall at the Historic Chicago Temple Building through Nov. 11.
For play times and ticket information, visit http://www.silkroadrising.org/live-theater/night-over-erzinga.