I met Michael Dukakis last week. No, not the former Massachusetts Governor and presidential candidate, but the 33-year-old up and coming actor and writer who moved to Los Angeles recently. The two share the same name and background, their ancestors having gone from Asia Minor over to the island of Lesvos, but they are not related. They met only after the younger Michael had managed to establish himself in Los Angeles and see his work gain international recognition.
In this year of the centenary anniversary of the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922 we are being reminded of that event’s silver lining, the achievements of the Asia Minor refugees and their contributions to Greece. There is also a story to be told about the struggle and success of the Asia Minor refugees or their descendants who came to America.
Names that immediately come to mind are Elia Kazan, the elder Michael Dukakis, and his cousin Olympia. Florida-based scholar Yiorgos Topalidis is engaged in a wonderful research project that will highlight the past and present of the Asia Minor Greeks who settled in the United States.
The young Michael Dukakis’ ancestors in Asia Minor were in the meat trading business and continued that line of work when they moved the short distance across the Aegean to Lesvos. He was born in the village of Thermì, on the eastern coast of Lesvos where his parents opened a boutique hotel. It was on its grounds, Michael explained when he showed me around, that he started organizing cultural events, music and theater performances for children and adults. Summer musical festivals are common on Greek islands, but few take place in such small places like Thermì. Greek-American singer Elli Paspala was one of several out-of-town artists who performed there.
Meanwhile, Michael got a degree in fine arts at the University of Ioannina and went on to train at the prestigious Karolos Koun Greek Art Theater in Athens and the National Youth Theater of Great Britain. After that came an ambitious leap into the unknown, a move to Los Angeles with the goal of furthering his career as a writer and screenwriter. Like many individuals who emigrate to America he had no ethnic or family networks to fall back on. The first stop was an overcrowded youth hostel, the second was the University of California in Los Angeles where he received a screenwriting certificate. A few years later he has three screenplays, To The Moon, Punish Me, and Ithaca are receiving awards and recognition across the world, from Austin to Venice and most importantly at the Angel Film Awards of the Monaco International Festival.
Michael had discovered theater at the age of twelve and for him that art form was an oasis that sustained him through difficult moments while growing up. “Young kids can benefit,” he told me, and “transform and navigate a better life when they get the chance to experience arts at a young age.”
Michael’s award-winning short screen play To the Moon is all about how a gender-non-conforming kid from a troubled family tries to escape abuse by immersing himself in his grandmother’s fairy tales. He overcomes the climate of abuse in the family by traveling to the magic lands of those fairy tales. The story is a wonderful melding of a Greek theme, the loving and strong role the yiayia plays in the life of so many Greek children, and the American belief in the ability to overcome adversity.
Olympia Dukakis had agreed to play the role of grandmother despite her limited mobility because of old age. Michael met her in New York City, and she became his acting coach and friend – she gave him a great deal of encouragement. Michael wanted me to know he approached her as a fellow Greek with roots in Lesvos and Asia Minor, and not claiming the status of a long-lost relative. Maybe one of the genealogy web-sites, so popular with Greek-Americans might establish a connection way back in Asia Minor, but I respect his insistence about not appearing to make any false claims.
Sadly, the great Greek-American actress and social rights activist passed in May 2021, a moment at which Michael was only just getting going in his efforts to raise funds for the film. The film, which will be set on Lesvos, will be dedicated to her loving memory. In doing so, To the Moon, should it manage to go from screenplay to film, will evoke multiple Hellenic and Greek-American motifs, the difficulties of rural life especially for a gender-non-conforming child, the empowerment offered by a strong and loving yiayia figure, and the struggle and success of Greek immigrants, including those with roots in Asia Minor. Fund-raising is going on right now through the crowdfunding platform https://www.gofundme.com/f/filming-to-the-moon-a-story-about-child-abuse.