by Ed Malin · August 22, 2015
The one-woman show Shake The Earth written by Lousine Shamamian and directed by Misti Wills tells stories of Lousine’s family’s survival of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and subsequent life in Brooklyn, as well as her coming out as a lesbian in the 1980s. In one seriously funny hour, the comic mind behind the “lesbian matchmaker to the straights” video series plays many roles and takes us around the world.
After leaving Yerevan, Armenia in 1978, Lousine relates the challenges of getting to know her Brooklyn relatives. They are amused by her red hair, her Eastern Armenian dialect (of the Armenian SSR, as opposed to the region seized by Turkey) and have lots of rules. There is also great warmth, for example on Christmas (which is celebrated later due to ancient custom, corresponding to Three Kings Day) when the children recite poems to persuade Santa to give them some love. The details of the women cooking while the men play backgammon are quite charming. Teenaged Louisine likes women, and has the good fortune to attend LGBT meetings at school and falls for a fabulous young lady who insists on kissing in the school hallway. However, Louisine’s mother reads her diary and precipitates a discussion about orientation. (Note: in 301 AD, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity and its ideas on love, and decriminalized homosexuality in 2003.) But why can’t one be oneself? Part of the answer can be found in the family’s silence.
Louisine learns after observing her great-grandfather’s eating habits that at a very young age he survived the persecution of Armenians in Turkey. It is still illegal to discuss the Armenian Genocide in Turkey today. Those who endured these events sometimes manage not to talk about them. Suffice it to say, her great-grandfather escaped from a forced labor camp in Eastern Turkey to find that all of his family had been wiped out except for a sister, now married and living in Aleppo. Coming barefoot into Aleppo, where there is a mass grave of 60,000 Armenians, he is finally reunited with his sister. As Lousine’s mother embraces her daughter’s journey, she encourages her to tell the stories that slowly come to light from her community. As it is said, “when you speak, it has to shake the earth.”
There are many facets to this tale, some very sad, some joyous. The show, a FringeHIGH production suitable for students, provides lots of historical background. A book of the many century-old Western news articles about the Armenian Genocide was passed around. In the show’s talkback session, I got to hear about how the show has guided Lousine’s path. She plans to take the show on tour around the country, where it will inspire many. Audience members are given a forget-me-not pin to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The history of persecution and of censorship affects us all.