A developing musical will share the story of one girl who survived the Armenian genocide.
Titled “A Journey of Angels,” the production focuses on 14-year-old Flora, who is deported to the Syrian desert during the Armenian genocide. The play is based on the book “My Mother’s Voice,” written by UCLA alumna Kay Mouradian, and the character Flora is based on Mouradian’s own mother. Mouradian said she was initially unwilling to write a book about her mother’s experience, but after conducting research and learning more about it, she discovered a newfound motivation to share her family’s personal history.
“I actually followed the deportation route from my mother’s village and the Syrian desert. I saw the last remaining descendent of the family (that rescued my mother), and she knew all about my mom,” Mouradian said. “It was like finding a needle in the haystack – there was a story that needed to be told.”
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers and failed to capture Baku, Azerbaijan, from Russian forces. The Empire blamed Armenians for siding with the Russians and in 1915, began executing Armenians. Soon, the Empire deported Armenians and forced them on death marches across the Syrian desert, where many of them died from starvation and exposure to the harsh environment.
As a child, Mouradian said she was disinterested with her mother’s many stories of the genocide. She only started to read into the history when her mother entered her 80s and faced near-death experiences. After each experience, Mouradian said her mother somehow came back more mentally alert and amiable toward others. As her mother continuously recovered, Mouradian eventually felt she needed to look into the genocide, eventually leading to “My Mother’s Voice.”
“When I realized the stuff that was happening to her was very unusual, that’s when I started my research,” Mouradian said. “It was really the research that drove me to write the book ‘My Mother’s Voice.’”
The process of transitioning from book to musical began at a luncheon honoring people’s work on genocide, Mouradian said. Two of the honorees, Brent Beerman and his wife Kathi Chaplar, created a series of workshops to teach students about 20th century genocide, focusing on the Armenian genocide. Beerman said Mouradian approached them and gave them her book. From there, he began writing the musical and teaching the book in his English class at Crescenta Valley High School, which has a large Armenian population. Before he taught the book, Beerman said Mouradian spoke to his class, and one student asked what the Armenian genocide actually was. It was then that he realized how few non-Armenian students knew of the important historical event, he said.
“The fact that they knew so very little of it really pushed the idea that they needed to be aware of their culture that surrounded them,” Beerman said.
When collaborating with Mouradian, Beerman said they worked together to combine or trim multiple events into one moment or scene. In the book, several chapters detail Flora’s marriage to an American Armenian, but in the production, the information is condensed into one scene that shows Flora leaving her village to go to America. This scene focuses on her survival at large, instead of the intricate details that brought her from her village to the States.
“When you’re adapting something, you want to get the essence of the characters – their changes, their goals – and the essence of what the plot is,” Beerman said. “When it’s all over, you want your audience to have the same feeling that a reader does after reading the book.”
Alongside Beerman, Chaplar, the musical director, also taught Mouradian’s novel at Crescenta Valley. In order to tell the story of a genocide that is both culture- and time-specific, she had to capture that in the music, Chaplar said. She researched traditional Armenian folk music and studied the chord structure and melodic progressions, emphasizing the sounds in scenes during which the dialogue is not enough to convey a particular sentiment.
For example, when Flora and her family prepare for deportation, the music focuses only on Flora’s family. The scene shows three generations of women storing their jewelry in the hems of their clothing in preparation to leave. However, the music eventually shifts from the family to the entire cast on stage, who echo the same melody. By changing the focus, the music symbolically indicates that the genocide was not an isolated incident, but an event that affected the entire Armenian population, Chaplar said.
Even though the production is still in development, it has been performed at Crescenta Valley twice. Mouradian said after the first performance, many of the cast members approached and thanked her for the opportunity to tell her mother’s story.
“Both (Beerman) and I felt a tremendous responsibility to do this right and to do this justice because these are real people,” Chaplar said. “It’s this balance of truth and fiction and trying to be true to the story.”