The story of the young Greek man coming to America can never be told too many times, and in Nick the Greek, Angeliki Giannakopoulos has told it brilliantly. In a one-hour performance staged as part of the United Solo Festival in Manhattan, she dramatized not only her father’s story, about the enormously ambitious young man determined to make it in America where “money grows on trees,” but her own, her mother’s, Soula’s, and her grandmother’s. In a wonderful tour de force, the actress/writer performs all the parts, including that of her father, who abandoned a thriving tailor business in Athens, told his wife to pack his suitcase – he would need his good suits and shirts for the big career he would pursue – and headed for the USA with $126. “In America,” he writes his family, “everything is bigger, even the umbrellas.”
Moving around the stage, Giannakopoulos makes lightning transitions. With the donning of a crocheted shawl, she becomes the grandmother, the wise old Greek cynic who called her father a “peasant in a nice suit” and warned her mother Soula against marrying him. In a short dress, she’s herself as a child. In a suit and straw hat, she’s Nick himself. This generic story never grows old, and straw hats are off to the actress/writer for capturing all the nuances and character of Nick the Greek, so specifically Greek in his pride, his doggedness, his ability to dream big, his intense love of family.
We recognize this man who “studied Clark Gable movies, how he walked, smoked, wore his hat, because that’s the look of the rich and educated.” Ginnakopoulos vividly creates the character of her father as he’s forced to put the grey suit in mothballs, gratefully take a dishwasher’s job, walking blocks to save fare and send money back to Greece. While telling his wife to sell off her dowry and property to keep their three children in a private school, he works two jobs a day when he can get them, struggling to get a green card, unable to leave the USA for a visit, because he will not be able to return having vastly overstayed his visa. Despite the odds against him, he writes that “at 45 I have more energy than when I was ten. I will make it.”
Ultimately, he goes to Los Angeles, and opens a tailor shop, Nick the Greek. He brings over his wife and three children, “my diamonds, the blood in my veins” to the United States. Giannakopoulos describes that first reunion with her father who “smelled of cologne and cigarettes. His hair was pure white at the roots. He wore a jacket that itched.” He offered his hard-earned wisdom to his children. “The handkerchief in your pocket tells who you are. Wear it full out to show that you are somebody. Go after life as if you are thirsty. Drink it to the last drop. America is the land of opportunity. If you work hard, you can be somebody.”
He tried to discourage his daughter from a theater career, encouraging her to go to medical school and become a hematologist. “Instead I married a doctor.” Giannakopoulos did not reunite with her father until she was twelve years old.
Despite creating a remarkable theatrical portrait of the man, in an exclusive interview with The National Herald, she admitted : “We did not get along at all. I blamed him for leaving us and making our mother suffer for a long time. I did find peace though, after he died. I started reading his old letters to us, and suddenly I felt an enormous compassion for him.”
She was inspired to do the show because “I love these characters. I know these characters in my bones. Once I decided to write the piece four years ago, it was just very easy to get on the page. It flowed. And my father was the easiest character to write. Maybe being a filmmaker I saw him as a very rich character, full of culture, life and conflict. I want to do the piece in as many cities in the U.S. as will invite me.”
Amy Chaffee, who studied acting with Giannakpoulos at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, directed the show. It will open in Los Angeles in February for an eight week run.
Giannakopoulos has had a 30-year career as a writer/actor/producer. In 1994, she established Artemis Productions and the Greek-American Theater Company of Los Angeles. Her award-winning documentary My Child – Mothers of War, introduced by Susan Sarandon, aired on PBS. It was then adapted into a stage show and premiered at the Hudson Theater in Los Angeles.