Montreal’s Teesri Duniya Theatre has a fall treat for all theatre folks. Teesri brings to us State of Denial, a play that was produced a few years ago, and is now being staged with a new director and actors. Liz Valdez (director) teams up with prolific playwright Rahul Varma and brings to the stage this absorbing and extremely thought provoking production that marks the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
The play takes a Rwandan-Canadian documentary filmmaker Odette (played with restraint by Warona Setshwaelo), who travels to Turkey as part of research for her project. The documentary project aims to bring to light stories of women victims, who have lived through violence and genocide, yet have been silenced by male driven historical narratives. Through her research Odette meets Sahana (brilliantly played by actress Victoria Barkoff) who runs a women’s center in Turkey, and has spent a lifetime helping women fleeing persecution and violence.
Director Valdez brings a uniquely fresh and engaging style to the narrative, as she uses sound, light and creates a secondary stage, covered through thin veils of transparent drapes. Most of the obvious and unspoken violence of the narrative occurs behind this thin barrier.
As Odette begins to dig deep into Sahana’s story, she finds that there is more to her than the image of a respected Muslim woman who spent a lifetime working for others. Slowly Odette begins to unravel what has the potential to blow the lid off this blatant secret, that an entire generation has been forced to keep and leave unacknowledged.
Moving back and forth between Turkey and Canada, the play tries to bridge the gap between the past and the present, attempting to bring to life deliberately erased stories that we contemporaneous people feel unaffected by.
Odette is kicked out of Turkey when she attempts to honor Sahana’s last wish and give her the burial that she truly deserves. Her disclosure is a chilling secret that ceases the denial of Sahana’s true identity, and results in Odette’s deportation back to Canada. Odette tries to keep her promise to Sahana and seek out her father (and any family he had) who fled to Canada. As she moves between Sahana’s history and her family in Canada, she stumbles upon her own demons that come haunting back. By her own admission, it’s the stories of others that help us understand ourselves and our often painful past. With the help of a Canadian diplomat/immigration officer (Mr. Cooper) Odette uncovers how all of Sahana’s letters to the Canadian government remained unopened, answered even after decades of when they were written. Her Canadian ‘family’ knew nothing of her, nor what happened to the ones who were left behind.
The play is not just about the political reasons for denying the history of a people; State of Denial also tries to strike at the heart of how our insulated lives keep these truths and their victims hidden somewhere, out of sight from everyone. There is this constant attempt not to acknowledge that a tragedy of enormous proportions happened and left millions of victims suffering in its path. The play also questions how it is the women who end up bearing the brunt of most violence, crimes and other perpetrated traumas.
With a competent cast of actors and great direction by Liz Valdez, State of Denial is emotionally challenging and left me questioning my part in the forgotten stories of our times. Barring the rather abrupt and I will say rushed climax, this play is a must watch.
State of Denial is playing at the Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd.) from October 8 to 25 (no shows Friday). Tickets $18-$26 (various discounts: students/seniors/groups/Segal Subscribers) Box Office: 514 739-7944 or online