Few people know the story of Armen Ohanian. The provocative Armenian performer and writer survived the Baku pogrom — an organized massacre of Armenian people — in the early 18th century as a child, and grew up to become a subversive, creative chameleon. Ohanian reinvented herself numerous times throughout her long life, leaving some aspects of her otherwise engaging story to remain a mystery — until now.
In order to bring some clarity to the life of a woman who was outspoken and sensual long before it was considered suitable, Canadian-Armenian performers Lee Williams Boudakian and Kamee Abrahamian have spent the last few years touring Dear Armen, a dramatic interactive theater performance that illuminates Ohanian's legacy while also exploring what it means to be genderqueer (someone who does not identify with conventional gender distinctions). The show will play next on October 7 in San Francisco at the Theatre of Yugen (2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco) with an encore performance at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley (3105 Shattuck Ave.) on October 8.
The story created by Boudakian and Abrahamian focuses on Garo (played by Boudakian), a genderqueer student who becomes fascinated by the mysterious past of Ohanian (played by Abrahamian) after studying the enigmatic woman for a class. As Garo's research progresses, the young student begins to slowly view the performer — whose sexuality is historically debated — as a literary mentor and source of cultural connection. What follows is an insightful coming-of-age story that weaves together complex narratives about ethnicity, gender, family, and survival with erotic Armenian dance and original music played by Haig Ashod Beylerian. In honoring Ohanian through the eyes of a young Armenian, the makers weave a compelling story while also passing down cultural memories that are often lost as a result of genocide and displacement.
Dear Armen also uses audience engagement to highlight the similarities between Ohanian's life and contemporary experiences. At each show, attendees are invited to participate and present their own material that relates to themes of heritage and self-exploration. Plus, each rendition includes a curated segment of performances by local actors and artists. With that, the show's producers ensure that each iteration is unique and representative of its host city.
"We hope that this show has something for everyone," said director and co-producer Anoushka Ratnarajah. "Even though it's engaging with an Armenian story and Armenian folk, there are lots of people who can relate to the themes, whether it's about family or intergenerational dialogue, love, or trauma."