On September 10, for one weekend only, native Angelena and three time Emmy award winning composer Denise Gentilini and recording artist Lisa Nemzo will mount their original production, I Am Alive, for an exclusive showing at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. Gentilini, who is of Armenian descent, tells the story of the Armenian Genocide through the account of her grandparents who survived the systematic killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Footlights spoke with Gentilini and her partner Lynette Prisner for a more personal look at the material and why this 100-year-old story is still important to tell.
This play is about a love story that survived a horrifying tragedy. Did it start that way?
Denise: I’ve been writing this for many years. I filmed a documentary, The Handjian Story: A Road Less Traveled about my grandparents in 2002. This is pretty much a continuation of that, only with more of the historical focus on the Armenian Genocide. The love story, though, is really what people want to see.
What about this story do you think will resonate with Armenian people and non-Armenian people?
Denise: I think that having the ability to love, finding love, and having it bloom while surviving a horrendous tragedy is a subject that everybody can relate to.
Why a musical?
Lynette: Live theater is much more accessible. And it’s more palatable to learn about a bit of history when it’s presented this way. No one knows about this part of history. It’s hidden. The response we are getting is that people now actually want know more. We’ve written songs with intention to tell a story and to be able to draw attention to something that people can yell about. If you write it in a song it becomes part of the mantra, part of the anthem.
What would you like to see happen as a result of producing this show?
To make sure this tragedy never happens again. That’s the obvious thing. I can’t expect that this show is going to cause Turkey to finally step up and admit that they ever did this or even get the United States of America to use the word ‘genocide.’ But what I’d like is to enlighten more and more people. Education is so far-reaching. We never really know what benefit comes from it. But it certainly is a lot more beneficial to have the knowledge than not. What’s important is to paint a picture of Armenians as survivors who have managed to thrive in spite of the lack of recognition – not as victims. That the genocide does not define us. So I am hoping the Armenian people will see this as a celebration and gain some sense of closure knowing that their story is being told in a new and different way. It’s important that Armenians embrace that. That someone sitting in the audience can say: ‘Yes! That’s my history. That is our spirit!’
You could have easily gone to any other city. Why Los Angeles?
Denise: I was born in North Hollywood and my grandparents were very well known in the community of Encino. People remember them. That’s important to me. And take in to account that Glendale and the greater Los Angeles area has the biggest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. When you get the Armenian people to give their stamp of approval then it can spread a little bit more easily.
There are many sides to a story. You touch upon that in this musical. Can you explain a bit?
Denise: Yes, absolutely and that’s fortunately a true part of the story. When, as a child, my grandfather was on the death march, he was picked up by a Turkish soldier who took him to an orphanage. This soldier basically saved my grandfather’s life. He remembered that man and wished that he had known his name. So in the musical, as it’s presented, there is a very important Turkish commander who is really struggling with the key question of the entire play, which is, “What kind of man am I?” It’s the question that keeps coming up throughout the entire musical from both sides.
We need to celebrate the human spirit in every situation. By doing that it is our hope that we will paint a bigger picture of both sides of the situation. Much like the Holocaust where you had the good Germans, the Schindlers, there were people who struggled to do the right thing. We pose the idea that if it’s a number of people greater than 50% who are trying we probably wouldn’t have a genocide.
You mention that this musical was often difficult to write because of the circumstance. How do you weave in the lightness?
Denise: We tried to weave in before the genocide actually happened in the timeline and lighten the story as much as we could without being gratuitous. There are a lot of graphic descriptions of the violence sung in song. A lot of sadness. A lot of loss. I wouldn’t say that we have a lot of humor. Just enough to alleviate some of the tough stuff.
This is my mother’s parents’ story. And as you can imagine, sometimes the truth doesn’t always lend itself to being interesting. So we’ve had to veer a little to the left or right with the relationship. During the process I would read the writing to my mom to test the water a bit, to see if it was OK, because I fabricated a little bit of stuff. Funny thing is, I think it’s gotten to the point where this is now the story she is actually going with.
Lynette: You’ve also got them celebrating with food and dancing. That just brings attention to the culture. Of course there are going to be some uplifting things, one of which is two young people falling in love.