In the Armenian world, in the Republic and the diaspora, Vahé Berberian is a unique phenomenon. True, he is an artist of many talents and media (theater, the novel, painting), but his singular place in the Armenian cultural/entertainment world is not related to the diversity of his media. Berberian is unique because over the course of a decade, he has managed to yoke a certain urbane hipness very much steeped in the LA scene to a language which is on the way to extinction. That language is Western Armenian and specifically the Western Armenian of Beirut, and even more specifically of a certain section of Beirut. In his monologues and his plays, Berberian is custodian, practitioner and “polluter” (he uses Turkish words and vernacular language) of his ancestral tongue, but more than that, he is its life-line to the cool. In his hands, our endangered Western Armenian is breathed life, energy, and most important, relevance.
It is a strange, improbable yoking, actually–this marriage of Beirut and Los Angeles whose material is as varied as it is center-less, a little bit like Los Angeles itself, and whose cohesion is achieved through narratives stitched to each other in an almost arbitrary way, eliciting wild laughter to audiences throughout the world. That is the second quality of Berberian’s uniqueness: that his material is wholly local and indigenous; there is no borrowing, no translation. And that he has managed over the past decade to create a loyal following. Yeté, which I saw in Belmont, MA, was no exception. The hall was packed, the audience was extremely responsive, and the place thundered with laughter, especially at Berberian’s more explicit jokes and jabs. Of the four monologues that I have seen, Yeté was the most daring in its language, its references, and its jabs, suggesting perhaps a new departure for Berberian, a more tightly woven text, a more focused, even hreatless gaze at our community life.
For all the singularity of Berberian’s achievements, his work veers too much toward entertainment, toward getting the laugh, pointing out the absurdities of being Armenian. Often, Berberian seems unwilling to take a stab at those things–the institutions, the attitudes, the rhetorics– which spawn the absurdities and foibles. This, too, could be entertaining, but with an edge, with a sharpness which lingers on after the laughter dies down.
Still, in the passage of diaspora culture from Beirut in the 1960s and 70s to today’s Los Angeles, Berberian’s contributions are substantial and groundbreaking. Now, if we could only get those kids in Armenian schools in Los Angeles to speak Armenian, we would be in a better place, as will our language of memory and intimacy; nightmare and laughter.