By Cecile Keshishian
On this happy occasion of Taleen Babayan’s play Where Is Your Groom? (Փեսադ Ո՞ւր Է:) on Sunday, March 31st, three guests of mine and I attended Taleen Babayan’s original, beautiful play at the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, CA.
The 600 seats were completely filled and there were no parking spots available – something we had never encountered before at that venue. Many people had to return as there were no available tickets for the sold-out show. The theater was at capacity and I couldn’t sit with my guests. A nice couple, Sonia and Ara gave us their seats and left to sit separately, respecting our Senior Citizen status.
Not only did Taleen write the play, she also was the director and the producer, all by herself. An American born Armenian from the East Coast, she grew up in a very solid Armenian intellectual home and presented us with this jewel of a play that depicts the mentality of Armenian parents towards their children, as they are raised in a Diasporan community, desiring for their children to marry an Armenian so they can preserve their identity.
She shows in the play, through satire, how the in-laws interact with each other; how the wedding should be planned; how their future grandchildren will be raised. And each party insists it should be their way, ignoring completely the ideas or wishes of the most important person – that of the bride-to-be. Each side is pushing their own ideas, whether it is the dress the bride has to wear, the music that has to play at the wedding and everything in between.
In this world we don’t only need doctors as the grooms for Armenian brides. In this world, we need it all: the doctors, the lawyers, the engineers, the politicians, and the artists. Because the artists are the ones who observe and serve these observations back to the community in order for it to evolve and enhance. In that way, we have to thank and congratulate Taleen, for bringing her part – through her talent and play to the Los Angeles Armenian Community, with great fanfare and to a standing-room only crowd.
At times these important messages are delivered most directly and most easily through satire and comedy. This is what the writer Hagop Baronian did in 19th century Constantinople when he highlighted the flaws of the city’s society life and influential figures in Armenian social circles through his sense of humor. While centuries have passed, this approach has transcended into the writing of the next generation, namely through our young and talented Taleen Babayan’s Where Is Your Groom? (Փեսադ Ո՞ւր Է:)
It was a huge creative undertaking Taleen began six years ago when she gathered a group of young Armenians with diverse backgrounds at the Players Theatre in New York City’s historic Greenwich Village to stage a theatrical story that conveyed the voice of their generation. What was meant to be a one-time production swelled to 15 performances across the country, where thousands enjoyed the humor and the message of the play. Responding to positive feedback, I hear that Taleen debuted Part II at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in 2017, where again the venue was filled to capacity with audience members who were eager to see the story of a Diasporan Armenian family battling assimilation and upholding tradition continue to unfold.
In addition to the laughter during the play, there was a sense of meaning – and at some point in the play, I hope, each of the audience members connected with a line of dialogue, a character, a plot point, forcing them to reflect on their own lives and their own behaviors. The continuous uproars of laughter were unstoppable. Everyone, for sure, was enjoying the evening!
What has happened behind the curtains was equally important to the action that took place on the stage. Performers met, friendships formed and couples married. And the Diasporan Armenian theater life was rejuvenated, from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and all the way to Pasadena. I also was lucky to have met and married my husband at the AGBU Cultural Club in Beirut, Lebanon. Clubs, theatre groups, and all kinds of activities are great venues to meet and marry your future partner.
Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, our parents always taught us the importance of service, particularly to the Armenian community. As orphans of the Armenian Genocide, they understood very well the significance of carrying on a rich and storied history that had come close to extinction one too many times. My siblings and I, in our own individual ways, supported projects that had a profound impact on our community, from the Diaspora all the way to Armenia. What I experienced at the play performance last Sunday gave me hope for the next generation. That someone of Taleen’s caliber, who graduated from the finest universities (Tufts University and Columbia University) and whose family has left an indelible mark on the community, has chosen to dedicate her time to the Armenian cultural life in the most productive manner. It was amazing, that, as I said, every single one of the 600 seats in the theater was taken and people were turned away at the box office.
Taleen made a conscious effort to entertain and educate while upholding a production level not of Armenian standards but on par with American theater life. And it paid off. From the very first line of dialogue, she and her cast and crew of 20 hooked the audience and took all of us on a two hour journey that brimmed of laughter, of well-developed characters and of a story that gives us optimism about our Diaspora, our homeland and ultimately, our people. I say this as someone who is savvy about theater and who has seen countless Broadway shows when we would visit our daughter, Aleen, in New York City, who lived there at the time. We would see a Broadway play Friday evening when we arrived in New York, Saturday evening and a Sunday matinee before driving back to Boston. I saw a lot of the professionalism I saw in those Broadway shows in Taleen’s play. But Broadway shows have hundreds of people working on their productions. Taleen is one-person who was taking care of the directing, the producing, the writing, the technical aspects, the organization, and being in charge of a 20 person cast and crew.
Taleen has marinated in her Armenian upbringing since birth. Who does not know her educator grandfather Yervant Babayan? Born and raised on the East Coast, Taleen speaks the language fluently (I always see her writing in Armenian during her coverage of events at the Western Diocese), understands the nuances of the history, the culture and the climate of the various communities – constantly with her finger on the pulse of Armenian happenings. She appreciates the Armenian language, she values those who came before her, she recognizes the importance of both the Diaspora and the homeland, and she ties all of these elements together into a relatable play that welcomes people of all backgrounds, including Armenians who don’t speak the language yet are just as nationalistic as the rest of of us. Her perseverance is unmatched, as is her discipline and work-ethic, her passion for her writing, and the energy and effort she puts forth to stage meaningful work for the Armenian community, from Where Is Your Groom? to the documentary she shot on location in Artsakh last summer. I hope we will see that too, one day. I wonder if anyone could do even a quarter of this, on his or her own, or with a group of writers, in an adopted community. Taleen is doing the job of the Armenian organizations and bringing what should be their mission to fruition, all the while forging a contemporary Armenian group, embracing their uniqueness and individualities, and leaving those involved in the play positively affected by the experience. We were amazed by these mostly amateur performers who acted like talented professionals in their roles.
We are all descendants of a certain person, of a certain place and of a certain time. My parents escaped the massacres and overcame many obstacles and hardships to form a new Armenian family, perhaps the strongest answer to attempted annihilation. Taleen, too, comes from a lineage of genocide survivors and keeps her family’s legacy of public service alive for the benefit of our Armenian Diaspora.
BRAVO Taleen, we love you and we are very PROUD of you!