AUTHOR’S NOTE: Fourteen years ago, I interviewed Denver actor Jacqueline Antaramian about her family’s harrowing experience during the Armenian genocide a century and 6,000 miles from here. That was in relation to a Denver Center world premiere musical being staged at the time called The Immigrant.
On Friday (April 29), writers Denise Gentilini and Lisa Nemzo present another developing new musical from the same period. It is called I Am Alive, and it will be presented for one night only at the Mile Hi Church in Lakewood.
This original dramatic musical follows the love story of Gentilini’s grandparents (pictured right), who survived the Armenian massacre as children in 1915. I Am Alive is described as “a testament to the Armenian people who endured atrocities – yet their culture, faith and history survives”
The cast includes veteran area actors, some of whom have performed with the Denver Center Theatre Company. The ensemble includes Erik Sandvold (A Flea in Her Ear), Mehry Eslaminia (Appoggiatura), Mare Trevathan (The Sweetest Swing in Baseball), Michael Morgan, Paul Page, Jennifer Burnett and Denver School of the Arts senior Jimmy Bruenger. The director is Christy Montour-Larson (Shadowlands).
To mark the return in subject to the Armenian genocide, I am reposting excerpts from my 2002 interview with Antaramian, which underscores the magnitude of that man-made tragedy. The following story was originally published in The Denver Post in January 2002. Antaramian does not appear in I Am Alive.
By John Moore
For The Denver Post
Actor Jacqueline Antaramian’s path from Armenia to America is rooted in the carnage of one of the most horrific tragedies of the 20th century. That she is now entertaining audiences here in the United States and not in, perhaps, Libya, is a story of genocide and pure chance.
On April 24, 1915, 235 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Istanbul, Turkey, sparking massacres that left an estimated 1.5 million Armenians dead. Thousands were marched into the Syrian desert and others, including Antaramian’s four grandparents, escaped to other countries.
In 1914, there were an estimated 5 million Christians in the Islamic nation of Turkey. Today that number is only 150,000.
“The horror was that the massacre was denied for so long, and is still denied today by the Turkish government, so no one really knew what happened to the Armenians,” said Antaramian. “Before Hitler killed all the Jews, he was quoted as saying, literally, ‘Who today remembers the Armenians?’ as a way of making the point that he could get it done,” and get away with it.
Every year, nearly 840,000 people become naturalized American citizens. And every one has a story to tell.
All of Antaramian’s grandparents eventually settled in Fresno, Calif., which before the collapse of the Soviet Union was home to the largest populace of Armenian Americans in the western United States. They got there via Ellis Island, New York, Ohio and Chicago, and there are as many twists in their stories as family trees have branches.
Antaramian’s own story began when she was born in 1962 in the Soviet-controlled Armenian capital of Yerevan. Her father, Paul, was born in Kenosha, Wis., but in 1946 was pulled back to a world where he never wanted to return.
I Am Alive: Ticket information
“After World War II, there was a repatriation. The communists were calling Armenians back to the homeland,” Antaramian said of a three-year forced campaign that lured 100,000 home. “They said, ‘Come back, it’s so great here, things are free.’ So a lot of people went back. My grandfather wanted his son to marry an Armenian, and so he took my father and his brothers. My father never wanted to go back to Armenia. He even ran away. He was 17 and he wanted to go to school. He wanted to be a doctor.”
But Paul Antaramian followed his father’s orders and returned to Armenia, where the family built a house made entirely from material they brought with them from America. As an “American Armenian” family, the Antaramians were considered better-off than most. Paul met and married French-born Virginie Hekimian, who bore Hazel and Jacqueline.
More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter
“At one time my mother’s family had pianos and many other nice things, but my grandfather got sick and they had to sell everything,” she said. “They became really, really poor. It came to a point where my mother had only one dress. It was devastating and sad.”
Paul Antaramian’s goal always was to return to America with his family, and he did so in 1966, when Hazel was 5 and Jacqueline 3.
George Clooney marks Armenian anniversary
“My parents were very anxious to get out of Armenia,” she said. “They really, really wanted their girls to have the opportunities and education they could only get in America.”
Leaving Armenia in the 1960s, however, was no easier than leaving it in the 1910s. “But certain nationalities had more of an opportunity to get out under Khrushchev,” she said. “The French minister had Armenian ties, and he made a deal with Khrushchev to get the French nationals out. We were only able to leave because my mother had French citizenship.”
Jacqueline’s maternal aunt wanted the family to join her in Libya, but they chose to settle in Wisconsin, where they lived for seven years before moving to Fresno.
Jacqueline became a U.S. citizen at age 14, when her mother was naturalized. Now 39 and with bloodlines that span three continents, she very much feels like a citizen of the world.
“I am as proud to be an American citizen as I am to be Armenian,” she said. “I have an Armenian history that I am very interested in remembering and maintaining. We can all only benefit from knowing more about every part of the world and all its different cultures.”
“The Immigrant” gives her an opportunity to do that. The story shows how author Mark Harelik’s Jewish grandfather’s life is changed forever when he asks a Southern Baptist banker and his wife for a drink of water from their well.
“This play deals with issues that are very important to me, especially people learning to live with things they are afraid of,” she said. “Most of the time, that’s strangers who have a different religious background or have different customs. It’s about how human beings on a basic level are all the same, but yet we get so frightened of one another when we come from different places. It’s about how beautifully we can come together if we let go of our prejudices.”
What she hopes comes through most in the music is a lesson that can be applied to our troubled world today.
“The whole reason there is this hatred in the world is because everyone thinks God is on his side,” said Antaramian, whose mother was raised by French Catholic nuns and whose father is an atheist, so she says she grew up “on equal parts faith and common sense.”
“What we really need to connect with is to humanity. We are all the same under one umbrella of God. I really believe in the beauty of science and the universe and a benevolent force. I would be very sad without it.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Scene from a concert presentation of ‘I Am Alive’ in 2015.