Pomegranates, Apricots and Paintings

A dancer in red, clapping her handsA few weeks ago I met an Italian-American woman who had worked for an Armenian charitable organization. She told me how it had been really hard, as a non-Armenian, to do her job, since it was such a tight-knit community. And then just last weekend an Armenian friend of mine was telling me about how she’s on a couple of Armenian e-mailing lists and how, if she wanted to, she could go to at least two different Armenian cultural events a week. “For instance,” she said, “next weekend I’m supposed to go see some show called Black Angel: The Double Life of Arshile Gorky“.

Now, apart from the movie Ararat and the performance artist Eric Bogosian, I knew hardly anything about Armenia, Armenians or the Armenian genocide and subsequent diaspora, but when I start hearing about the same themes from different places, I know that something is pushing me, so I decided to go check out the show and increase my knowledge.

The show Black Angel: The Double Life of Arshile Gorky grew out of the research done for a book by the same name by Nouritza Matossian. Arshile Gorky, the famed Abstract Expressionist painter, came to this country after the Armenian Holocaust of 1915, and has long been a figure of mystery and speculation.

In Black Angel Ms. Matossian decided to take the interviews and research she had done with the significant women in Gorky’s life and use their narratives to create a portrait of the artist, and in that she succeeds.

Through the first-person accounts of Gorky’s mother, sister, wife and mistress we learn about Gorky’s life from his impoverished beginnings in Armenia and subsequent flight from the genocide, to his early years in America through to his years of relative success and finally, his sad end at his own hands.

Some solo performances succeed on the virtuosity of the performance as we see a single actor transform themselves from one character into another. Some succeed on the sheer force of the personality of the performer and still others succeed because of the subject matter at hand.

Ms. Matossian has created a relatively simple show. She wears a simple pomegranate colored shift and her only prop is an apricot-colored shawl that doubles as a skirt, a scarf, an apron and a babushka. The evening is presented in four sections, each one devoted to one of the women and she uses the scarf to subtly indicate character changes within each section. The stories are illustrated by slides on either side of the stage: villages in Armenia, family photographs, Gorky’s paintings.

Many of the scenes are accompanied by haunting Armenian folks songs, which add to the sense of longing and loss that created the context from which Gorky’s genius grew.

Matossian presents the women’ stories in chronological order starting with Gorky’s mother in Armenia, followed by his early years in America with his sister, his years as a starving artist with his lover and mistress and ending with his period of success and finally dissolution with his wife.

The chronological approach to revealing Gorky’s character works well with Ms. Matossian’s performance style – which is one that I don’t see too often anymore. Half-lecturer, half-actress, she tells the stories of the characters simply and without adornment. While we are not witness to the pyrotechnics of a John Leguizamo or Anna Deveare Smith, Ms. Matossian’s simple unadorned delivery allows us to focus on the words of the story she is telling. And in this respect the play succeeds as an example of the importance of bearing witness.

Black Angel had it’s final performance in New York on December 7th, but the book is available in most bookstores, and I would imagine the show will return at some point in the future. If it doesn’t return, the subject material would certainly be an exciting project for some enterprising theater artist.

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