Spotlight: Carene Mekertichyan ’16’s thesis explores race, gender

by Nalini Ramanathan | 4/28/16 5:01pm

4.29.16.arts_.carene_courtesy
Carene Mekertichyan ‘16 starred as “Mama” Morton in “Chicago” last term.
Source: Courtesy of Philip Son

As one of the few women of color in the College’s theater department, Carene Mekertichyan ’16 has continuously employed her talents to spur discussions on gender, race and identity using the stage. Her honors thesis production of Ntozake Shange’s piece “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” (1976) could provoke new conversations at Dartmouth.

Hailing from Los Angeles, Mekertichyan was always interested in acting, choosing Dartmouth because of its theater program when she was applying to college.

As a student from a low-income background who had never been out of the country before coming to the College, Mekertichyan said that Dartmouth has given her many opportunities to expand her perspective in the realm of theater, from her theater FSP in London to the many shows that the department funds majors to see.

Like all theater majors at Dartmouth, Mekertichyan trained in all aspects of theater. Her focus in the department, however, is acting.

Mekertichyan has been in three of Dartmouth’s MainStage productions, which are faculty or guest-directed shows put on by the theater department each fall and winter term. Most recently, Mekertichyan was cast as one of two actresses to play Matron “Mama” Morton in “Chicago” (1975) this winter.

Mekertichyan said that she constantly thinks about the way her roles represent women of color, particularly when she is the only woman of color on stage.

In “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” (2009), a period piece produced by MainStage in the fall of 2014, Mekertichyan played a wet nurse. As the only woman of color onstage playing a role that can sometimes perpetuate stereotypes, Mekertichyan was particularly concerned about finding depth in her character, she said.

“It can kind of be a tough thing to navigate the politics of, ‘Well, how do I empower this woman?’ when the writing isn’t necessarily empowering her because it’s written by a white woman,” Mekertichyan said.

Although the theater department is very welcoming, Mekertichyan said, many of the performances tend to be shows with predominantly white roles and the casts tend to have very few people of color. Although these shows reflect the current composition of the theater department, she said that when people of color see these shows with few individuals that look like them, they have difficulty visualizing themselves in theater and tend to shy away from the department.

After seeing honors theater thesis performances by the class of 2013 as a freshman, Mekertichyan knew she wanted to complete an honors thesis.

Mekertichyan said she chose a play with only actresses of color in hopes of changing the underrepresentation of women of color in theater. The show highlights minority issues and features a cast of seven women of color, including five actresses from outside the theater department,

Although Mekertichyan said she has always been fascinated by this work, she chose this piece in particular because she said she found the issues it discussed, particularly self-love, sisterhood and sexual assault, relevant to Dartmouth campus life despite its age.

As a public policy minor with a concentration in identity and president of MOSAIC, a club at Dartmouth that deals with multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural identities, Mekertichyan works to address issues that people of color face at Dartmouth and the world beyond it.

During her time Dartmouth, Mekertichyan said that she noticed some issues, although not exclusive to the College, that she wanted to address in her work, from the way women are treated when they come forward after sexual assault to the lack of discussion of issues that particularly affect women of color. Mekertichyan hopes that this show will help foster greater discussion around these issues.

Shange’s piece is in a “choreopoem” style, involving a non-linear narrative and twenty poems unified by music and dance. Seven women of color play the roles, identified only by the “color” they are assigned. Mekertichyan herself plays the Lady in Red, who ties the play together. All of the characters are onstage for the entire show, something that Mekertichyan has never done before.

She chose the character because it spoke to her. When she first presented her thesis proposal, Mekertichyan said she was not sure what role she would play. But when it came time to decide, she responded with the character’s name immediately.

Theater professor Jamie Horton, who is advising Mekertichyan on her acting for her thesis, noted Mekertichyan’s talent in accessing emotions, particularly when acting as Elizabeth in “In the Next Room.” Her thesis production is rooted in emotion as well, according to guest director Deena Selenow, who has been working with Mekertichyan since week three. As director, she tells the cast to focus more on the emotional and less on the logical.

“When this honors thesis was being discussed and proposed, it just felt like a wonderful fit for her to challenge herself, to really grow,” Horton said.

Mekertichyan also works as a dramaturge in her production, advised by theater professor Laura Edmondson. Although the term often refers to the research and historical contextualization of a piece, Edmondson said that the role of a dramaturge is rather fluid and can expand and contract as needed. For Mekertichyan, she said, this role seems to have expanded.

Following the traditional role of a dramaturge, Mekertichyan researched the history of the piece. Although there was little critical scholarship on this piece, Mekertichyan researched aspects of black theater, involving both the history of this play and the state of the world today.

This work can be used to create a more modern interpretation of the piece, as Mekertichyan did, changing some of the nursery rhymes to more relevant musical choices from her generation, ranging from themes of sisterhood in selections from “Cheetah Girls” to more sexual themes in Cassie’s “Me & U” (2006) and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (2014).

She has also used her role as dramaturge to create a source of background knowledge for her cast. Mekertichyan said that she has attended every meeting from production to design, to ensure that her vision for the piece is realized. She has also used her role to foster a more collaborative community among the cast and crew.

Many productions, stage manager Liza Couser ’17 notes, are often more hierarchical. However, due to the material, the size of the cast and Mekertichyan herself, this show proves to be an exception.

Ashley Dotson ’18, who does lighting design for the show, noted how accepting Mekertichyan was of her ideas.

“Since this is my first time really working on any sort of production at Dartmouth, it’s definitely helped me in my confidence to work on her show, which is really reassuring,” Dotson said.

Guest director Deena Selenow, who has been working with Mekertichyan since week three of production, much longer than many guest directors, Mekertichyan said, noting the significance of the show’s all-female design team, lighting, cast and director.

This, Horton said, can be seen in the show itself, even in its earlier stages.

“It’s a very talented group of young women,” Horton said. “I think the material, the room, and the rehearsal atmosphere that is brought out by the director is bringing out something of a really, really special nature.”

After graduating, Mekertichyan plans to move back home to Los Angeles to pursue acting and writing. She will be back this fall for eight weeks in September and October to play a witch in “Macbeth” at Northern Stage in White River Junction, a role she said she landed with the help of theater professor Carol Dunne.

“for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” will be showing May 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. and May 15 at 2 p.m. in the Bentley Theater.

Correction appended (April 29, 2016):

The original version of this article stated that Mekertichyan's character, the Lady in Red, is the only one that stays on stage for the entire show. In reality, all of the characters are onstage for the entire time.

The original version said that Mekertichyan watched the honors thesis performances of the class of 2012. As a freshman, she actually watched the performances of the class of 2013.

Thephoto attached to this article was originally attributed to Carene Mekertichyan. The photo should have been attributed to Philip Son '16.