PROVIDENCE, R.I.—“This is the Armenian way.” That’s how Susan Chakmakian, known locally as Susie, begins her one-woman play Gar oo Chigar by recounting well-known and humorous Armenian idiosyncrasies and emphasizing them with this phrase. The Providence Hamazkayin hosted Chakmakian in front of a full house on Saturday evening for her performance of “There Was and There Was Not: Telling Armenian Stories.”
Alternating between her Armenian grandmother persona (indicated with eyeglasses and an accent) and herself, Chakmakian delights the audience with her hilarious take on the long Armenian goodbye from the standpoint of a six-year-old child, fighting to pay for the check at a restaurant, cleaning the house for company, expressing love for babies (vorigud oodem) and more. Chakmakian also weaves in Armenian family life including plentiful food, such as soujoukh, basturma, tel banir, choreg and her personal favorite, labneh, and the requisite home furnishings of handwoven Armenian rugs and a painting of Mt. Ararat. All of this resulted in a great deal of laughter and head nodding from the audience.
Contrasting with the laughter, Chakmakian uses her platform to share lessons in Armenian language and history, both the uplifting – first Christian nation – and the difficult: the Genocide. In an interesting twist, she ends the first half of the play with the year 1915 displayed on a black screen, but then chooses to begin the second half by moving to the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia. When she addresses the Genocide in her play, she includes issues of intergenerational trauma and cultural genocide. “When do we get to win?” her character asks emotionally. “When do we get to keep what is ours?”
Chakmakian poignantly sings “Giligia” near the end of the play, and the emotional silence from the audience was palpable. She ends her performance on a high note, focusing on survival and embracing Armenian culture with music and dance. Her slideshow, music and lighting were expertly handled by stage manager Tylar Jahumpa. The audience members inside the Aramian Auditorium at Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church expressed their appreciation with resounding applause and a standing ovation as members of Providence Hamazkayin presented her with a bouquet of flowers, which was followed by the customary abundant refreshment table.
Following her weekend performance, the Weekly discussed the genesis of “There Was and There Was Not” with Chakmakian, a proud first-generation Armenian American and a graduate of the Sts. Vartanantz Church Mourad Armenian School. Chakmakian received her undergraduate degree in English from Brown University and her masters’ degrees in English and Library and Information Studies from the University of Rhode Island. She is currently working as a librarian at the Naval War College Library in Newport. She is also the recording secretary for the Armenian Historical Association of Rhode Island.
Chakmakian originally developed the play at the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) in Wakefield, RI, where she was dressed in a costume with a hood for another show and sharing funny “old country” stories backstage with fellow actors. They told her she looked like an Armenian grandma and her stories would make a great play, encouraging her to submit it to the theater’s Springboard Season. Ultimately, the CTC, where Chakmakian spends her free time working as an actor and stage manager, accepted her submission.
“There Was and There Was Not: Telling Armenian Stories” debuted at CTC back in May, where appreciative audiences consisted of both Armenians and non-Armenians, which is very important to Chakmakian. “Non-Armenian audiences might be hearing these things for the first time, and it’s going to be fun and exciting and new for them,” she explained, “and for Armenian audiences, they would be hearing things they know but may not have thought about in the way that I’m presenting it to them.”
Chakmakian also noted the different viewpoints of the audiences between the CTC and the church. The CTC audience came to the show with the understanding that this is theater that happens to be about Armenians, whereas this past weekend’s audience came from the perspective that this is an Armenian story that happens to be a play. Chakmakian wrote the play knowing that the original setting would be more non-Armenian, and as it was performed last spring, she realized the connection of many, including indigenous communities, to its universal themes. In creating a work designed to both entertain and educate, she “ended up unearthing that everybody goes through many of the same things, but with different seasoning on top.”
The humor is the “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down,” Chakmakian said. “The message at the end of the day is that we learn from the history, we recognize the history, but we also figure out how to live our lives and feel joy.” She told the Weekly that she will be happy to perform the play for as long as people want to see it, wherever that may be. Following an engagement on Block Island this Friday, Chakmakian will perform “There Was and There Was Not” on April 14-15, 2023 at 7 p.m. in the Green Room at Barker Playhouse in Providence, RI.
Sounds like a thrilling performance. Has it been recorded on shared on YouTube?