New works of theatre inspired by or in direct response to an issue or conflict are no stranger to the New York stage. Just last year, Mark and Marichka Marczyk’s Counting Sheep shared with audiences the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, and immersed them directly in the experience. Joyce Van Dyke has continued this trend of imaginative twists with Daybreak, a play about the repercussions of the Armenian Genocide. Often called the first genocide of the 20th century, this systematic murder and deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire passed its 100th anniversary in 2015. Facing continued Turkish (governmental) denial of the genocide and inspired by her own grandmother’s exploits, Van Dyke pens a play that journeys through the long night to find a little daybreak of its own.
The play tells the story of Victoria (based on Van Dyke’s grandmother) and her friend Varter, two Armenian women deported from the city of Mezireh in 1915 who made their way to new lives in America. The settings and scenes alternate between Victoria’s various American addresses throughout her lifetime and a dreamlike space she inhabits and within which she encounters other characters.
The fantastical aspect of this show is both its crown jewel and its Achilles heel. The dream space ruptures time and space, bringing together characters and introducing plot developments that otherwise would be impossible. Though it is an effective storytelling mechanic and adds to the show’s originality, it also introduces areas of maintenance within the script that, if not dealt with, can be risky or problematic. Daybreak embodies this in two ways.
The first concerns the pacing. While Van Dyke neatly packs a complete story into a comfortable runtime, the show lacks punctuation. Beat changes between dialogue are not clearly defined, and neither shifts in tone nor weighted lines are given time to marinate with the audience before the play moves on. Also, Victoria jumps in and out of reality without so much as a lighting change or some indicator beyond an actor entering—which would not be confusing if there was a difference between how characters entered in real life as opposed to in Victoria’s fantasy. It doesn’t help that sometimes Victoria straddles the two realms, and her conjurations remain onstage after she’s returned to earth. The rapport of the actors can risk being their own worst enemy—the audience has to be able to keep up as well.
The second issue concerns the tone. The pacing dilutes not only the individual moments, but also its scenes, and on a larger scale, the entire feel of the play. There’s nothing wrong with shifting (even metaphysically) settings and tones, but there has to be some level of consistency that connects the various stops. Some of the scenes in Daybreak carried the gravity of its source material, others felt almost absurdist to the Beckett degree. The mood shifts nonlinearly from exposition to fever dream and back again. It is also laughably self-referential, especially in this exchange: “Not everything can make sense.” “This is a dream, isn’t it. I’m having a dream. This is my dream!” It doesn’t anchor the audience to effectively engage with the material and its significance. The fantasy has to invite just the right amount of suspension of disbelief, and more importantly, the kind that leaves out the characters (whose motives and relationships, especially in a play of this topic, have to remain grounded).
These aren’t problems so much as they are at risk of being problematic. The bottom line remains that Daybreak is a polished project with an important story to share and a topical message of reconciliation to supplement it. And also the acting. Nicole Ansari gives a bravura performance as Victoria, and the chemistry she shares with Michael Irvin Pollard’s Harry in no way overshadows his command of his own role. Pollard’s Harry is a unique but strong take on a deceptively nuanced role—at times overbearing, at times philosophical, at times pained. The staging was mostly well done—the pacing detailed above is a credit to how seamless (too seamless) the show ran, but it also felt very natural.
The play does effectively engage audiences with the history of the Armenian Genocide, and no doubt leaves many curious for more background. That said, it focuses on the prospect of reconciliation. Not necessarily between governments, (the “Turkish-Armenian Truth and Reconciliation Conference” is unfortunately fictional) but between people—the level of connection most suited to the stage. One of the most affecting moments is when Victoria comes to terms with a Turkish woman with whom she could’ve entrusted her baby, and concedes that it would’ve been the right thing to do for the baby’s survival. The solidarity they share as women and mothers overrides the enmity Victoria harbors for Turks. It is a tiny bit of that anticipated daybreak.
A work as ambitious and experimental as Daybreak is bound to experience a few bugs, but in the end, it is a strong piece that, from both an audience and critical standpoint, inspires confidence.
(Photo by John Quincy Lee)