State of Denial delivers a powerful punch

State of Denial

Set in contemporary Canada and Turkey of 1915, State of Denial links the Turkish-denied Armenian genocide of 1915 with the 1995 genocide in Rwanda, connecting them through the Canadian diaspora experience.

When Odette, a Rwandan-born Canadian filmmaker, travels to Turkey to investigate stories of genocide and hidden identity, she interviews Sahana, an elderly and respected Muslim woman who has devoted her life to assisting Armenian survivors. On her deathbed, Sahana confesses a chilling secret to Odette – a secret that challenges a long-standing state of denial – a secret that Odette must promise to make public at any cost.

Heavy, didactic plays can often be preachy and slow-paced in tone, preferring to focus on the instructional aspect of the story at the expense of its entertainment value. This is where State of Denial rises above, because it retained my interest from the very first line uttered until the lights went out. The acting is natural and extremely competent, doing justice to the topic and the writing.

This is a beautiful and haunting story, perhaps predictable in its eventual conclusion, yet taking nothing away from the compelling hideousness of violent scene after violent scene that breaks down gendered violence and ethnic cleansing for us to see.

Of course why the story works has a lot to do with the timelessness and pertinence of the subject matter itself. Violent conflict, genocide, social injustice, rape as a weapon of war, religious differences used as a convenient tool for annihilation and death… None of this is in the past. It’s taking place right now around the world, and sadly in the very same place this play unfolds.

As we commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, we are only too aware of the tendency of humans to repeat the same mistakes. This story isn’t the past. It’s now, and it will undoubtedly be the future.

State of Denial is written by Rahul Varma, who is a playwright, essayist, community activist, and artistic director of the Teesri Duniya Theatre which he co-founded in 1981. He writes both in Hindi and English which is the language of his adulthood. He is one of only a few culturally diverse playwrights whose works have been translated and produced in French, Hindi and other languages.

“An artist must push the boundaries, worry authorities, question existing notions of morality, question what is handed down to them by the status-quo, media enterprise and the governments, and bring to the fore the voiceless, raise the voice that needs to be raised, and do so with artistic beauty and imagination.”

Teesri Duniya Theatre does exactly that. Each season they present bold, profound, thought-provoking plays (always with a multi-ethnic cast) on issues of social injustice and human rights and introduce audiences to a rich repertoire of fresh stories and voices. The theatre company is dedicated to producing, developing and presenting socially and politically relevant theatre, based on the cultural experiences of diverse communities. I have always walked out of their productions a little more knowledgeable and hopeful for the world.

Director Liz Valdez does a wonderful job with the production’s flow. Each scene, from past to present, to future, and back to the past, eases into each other seamlessly. Not an easy task for a production with such a small budget, but it’s a testament to her talent (and the stage manager’s) that it works beautifully.

Valdez emphasizes that the play ultimately focuses on how it’s always women and children who suffer at the hands of men in these wars, “The relationship between the women is the most important one in the storytelling. Their perspectives and experiences don’t come from their own choices but from ones that men made for them in times of war, dispute and horror. The story lies in uncovering the layers of what women do to keep going, keep surviving, keep loving and healing; how to live with the truth we need and the truth that actually is.”

For Mher Karakachian, Chairman of the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Canada (AGCCC), denial has been rightly considered as the last phase of the crime of genocide, “Survivors and scholars alike have repeatedly reminded us that that forgetting or denying such a monstrous crime kills the victims twice. State of Denial vividly portrays this tragic fact and in the most creative ways, brings the ongoing ploys of denialism under the spotlight.”

It is to Rahul Varma’s credit that he captures what war does to women so well, but most deeply moving to me was how he captured their resiliency and strength. It is the bearers of life that, after all, know it goes on. This is a very good play and I highly recommend it.

Teesri Duniya Theatre, in collaboration with the AGCCC, will be presenting Rahul Varma’s State of Denial until October 25 at the Segal Centre Studio (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd.). Tickets are a very reasonable $18-$26. For more information and/or tickets: Box Office: 514 739-7944 or online at the Segal Centre.