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Tufts Drama Department explores Armenian Genocide with production of ‘Daybreak’

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

(The Tufts Daily) – Today, Tufts Department of Drama and Dance debuts its production of “Daybreak,” a play by Boston playwright Joyce Van Dyke. Titled “Deported/a dream play” when it was first put on at Boston’s Modern Theater in 2012, “Daybreak” tells the stories of refugees from the Armenian Genocide. Structurally, the play is split into three scenes depicting the different stages of protagonist Victoria’s changing relationship to the often overlooked tragedy. Victoria, played by sophomore Kristin Reeves, is modeled after the Van Dyke’s grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide.

History of the Armenian Genocide

During the Ottoman Empire’s reign, the Armenian people were treated as second-class citizens. They were able to maintain their own communities but were considered them inferior to Muslims and were not afforded the same freedoms. In 1915, Ottoman government began rounding up Armenian men, ostensibly for conscription, and deporting Armenian women and children with little warning. Armenians were forced to walk toward Syria on what were essentially death marches, during which they were abused by Ottoman soldiers. Many Armenians died from lack of nourishment. Others were systematically murdered. Those who survived scattered into the diaspora.

The timing of the Tufts production of “Daybreak” is fitting, as 2015 marks the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. In those 100 years, Turkey has continuously denied culpability, let alone the existence, of mass, ethnically targeted killings. Yet, blame is not the point of the play, nor this production; rather, it is acknowledgement and commemoration of the past.

Barbara Wallace Grossman, professor of drama and “Daybreak” director, has a particular fascination with the Holocaust and other genocides, teaching courses like “Confronting Genocide on Stage and Screen” in which students analyze art’s relation to massive tragedies.

“I am very committed to using the arts to illuminate the Holocaust and genocide,” Grossman said. “I’ve created two courses here [on the subjects]. I felt that I had to do something [to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide]. I felt the department had to do something. I felt that Tufts had to do something to honor that … If this year were the 99th or the 101st, I might not have. But the 100th anniversary — to me — demanded attention. Plus, it’s a play I have used in my course … For me, it was an opportunity I had to seize.”

A collaborative process

Grossman also noted that the process of putting on “Daybreak” has been a collaborative one, involving students, faculty and staff as well from some outside the Tufts community.

“I could not have asked for a more dedicated, creative, imaginative, wonderful group of people [to work with],” Grossman said. “It’s been a very meaningful experience.”

According to Grossman, Susan Lind-Sinanian, a textile curator at the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown Mass., has provided a number of the costumes and set pieces for the Tufts production that also serve as an integral tie-in with a recurring plot point. Lind-Sinanian and her husband, along with Daniel McCusker, senior lecturer in the Department of Drama and Dance, also helped with producing the choreography for the production. The ensemble’s dances heavily feature spinning and twisting, as if to whirl the audience through the time between scenes.

“Daybreak” has also continued to adapt with this production. One of the actors, senior Artoun Nazareth Festekjian (who plays Victoria’s husband Harry, among other characters), found a linguistic inaccuracy in the script that has since been remedied.

Martin Deranian, who was a faculty member at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine for more than 40 years, also assisted with the production. Were it not for Deranian “Daybreak” may never have been written at all. According to a April 8, 2013 TuftsNow article, Deranian met Van Dyke in 2003 after attending one of her plays. He had discovered 50 years earlier that his mother, Varter Nazarian, and Van Dyke’s grandmother Elmas Sarajian (whose name is changed to Victoria in the play) had been childhood friends who survived the Armenian Genocide together, the article said. According to Grossman, Deranian encouraged Van Dyke to write a play about the Armenian Genocide.

“Once [Deranian] began passing this material on to me — stories, letters, photos, artifacts — I couldn’t stop thinking about these two women and the way their story could give focus to this huge cultural cataclysm,” Van Dyke wrote about the development of the play on its website.

Grossman said that Van Dyke offered her guidance to the Tufts production, as did Deranian, who will also be participating in a talkback after the performance on Oct. 31.

“A dream play”

According to Festekjian, working on “Daybreak” has been difficult for the actors, who bear the play’s emotional weight.

“It was a difficult topic,” Festekjian said. “I felt emotionally connected to this piece. It’s been the hardest production to work on in terms of having to go home at night after rehearsals … It’s hard to do your homework.”

Grossman added that the play’s non-linear narrative structure was an added challenge.

“It’s a complicated play, because when you read it on paper, it is extremely confusing. So much of it appears in flashbacks,” Grossman said. “We spent two or three rehearsals literally just walking through the play.”

It’s easy to understand how the plays previous title — “Deported/a dream play” — came to be. Throughout the show, the past continuously intrudes on the play’s present. Specters and memories interact with each other and the people they haunt.

“It’s a play where some of it is real, some of it is fake; but that’s not the point,” Reeves said. “It’s the same way that when you’re having a dream, it all feels real.”

“Daybreak” debuts tonight at 8 p.m. in Balch Arena Theater. Tickets are $10 with a Tufts ID. Check the production’s Facebook page for more showtimes over the next week.

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