BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Over the past few years, Arno Yeretsian, the proprietor of Abril Bookstore in Glendale, has assiduously turned his store and its adjacent Roslin Gallery into a thriving Armenian cultural center. Unassuming and modest though he may be, Yeretsian has proven himself a one-man tour de force, who has built meaningful relationships with a vast array of Armenian artists and writers, providing them with the space and the opportunity to present their work. Admission to events at Abril/Roslin is often free (or moderately priced), ensuring access to a wide swath of the community. Yeretsian has effectively done more, by himself, to promote Armenian culture in L.A. than entire organizations that claim the promotion of Armenian culture as their raison d’etre.
Yeretsian’s venues were ground zero in June for events celebrating queer Armenian art and culture during Pride month. In collaboration with the Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society (GALAS), the venues hosted panels, film screenings, readings, and a solo performance by Nancy Agabian.
Agabian was an L.A.-based writer and performance artist through much of the 1990s. (I recall coming across one of her performances, entirely by accident, in a downtown parking lot; I also published one of her writings in the short-lived literary journal “aspora”). She is now in New York, a writer and a professor at NYU, and the performance was her first in L.A. in nearly 20 years.
The performance, entitled “Family Returning Blows,” is an unflinching account of domestic violence – both in Armenia and in Agabian’s own life. It begins in Armenia, where Agabian lived for a year in 2006 – with difficulty, since she is not fluent in the language. A self-identified bisexual feminist, she was flummoxed by the country’s ideas about gender; they “freaked me out,” she says during the performance. She met a man in Yerevan, whom she eventually married, and he moved with her to New York. Their marriage proved troubled – and physically turbulent. Agabian’s husband would pick her up during arguments and even sit on her. She, in turn, would strike him, both in self-defense and out of sheer exasperation.
In its original version, Agabian had performed “Family Returning Blows” from the interior of a tent constructed of household sheets and brooms (to evoke the notion of domesticity), crawling out of it on occasion but never directly facing the audience – rather, covering her face with a scroll hanging from a crown of wire atop her head. Prior to the performance at Abril, however, Agabian had fractured her wrist, and it was still in a cast, making it impossible for her to negotiate the tent. So she had reconstructed the piece, projecting a decade-old video of the portions with the tent and performing the portions with the scroll live.
Seeing the performer at different decades of her life – dark-haired at first, salt-and-pepper later – was intriguing, but the transitions between the video segments and the live performance were awkward at best. The scroll was a fascinating accoutrement. One could think of it as a veil or even a shield (as when Agabian wrapped it around herself) symbolizing shame or defensiveness, though in a post-performance Q&A she said that it was merely a device to help her avoid memorizing lines.
Memorize lines, she had not. Even with the help of the scroll, there were several instances when Agabian stopped mid-performance to consult her script. Hers was an altogether under-rehearsed performance serving as a form of art therapy.
Haphazardly edited, the piece tried to connect Agabian’s personal story with bone-chilling interviews with abused women in Armenia and, less comprehensibly, with the recent U.S. policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents. All this was forced into an overarching theme about “accidents” – inspired by Agabian’s wrist fracture and laden with strained metaphors.
Early in her career, Agabian was a pioneer among Armenian writers and performers who explore queer themes in their work, but her style has remained resonant of the ’90s, all soft voice and languid cadence. That’s too bad – because queer performance art is altogether at another level now, if groundbreaking shows like Taylor Mac’s epic “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” – which was in L.A. only a couple of months ago – are any indication.
Of course, the mere fact that queer art and theater are becoming visible in the Armenian community serves as a marker of progress. Yeretsian deserves considerable credit for his support, but the credit Agabian deserves is particularly longstanding – and overdue.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His next production, “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance,” is slated to have its world premiere this fall