Review by James Wilkinson
Knyum is written and performed by Vichet Chum. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Directed by KJ Sanchez. Scenic Design by Dan Conway. Costume Design by Szu-Feng Chen. Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal. Sound Design by David Remedios. Projection Design by Jon Haas. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, through February 4
I find myself in an odd position, advocating for listening as a political action. Surely, some may argue, you’re not doing anything if you’re listening. However, as the #MeToo movement has proven in the last few months, there can be much to be gained by simply stopping what you are doing and letting someone else have their say. There’s a moment in Vichet Chum’s new play, Knyum, that keeps replaying in my mind now, two days after I have seen the show. The play’s lead (and only) character, Guy, describes a day when his Cambodian mother visits a supermarket in their Texas hometown. Both of his parents immigrated to the States following the Cambodian genocide. English is not his mother’s first language and not noticing the sign, checks out in the twelve items or fewer line with more than twelve items (oh the horror…). In the parking lot, another customer attempts to make a scene and shame Guy’s mother for such a heinous crime and at that point Guy realizes, “my mother did not survive a genocide to put up with this bullshit.”
But I am getting ahead of myself….
Vichet Chum’s new play, Knuym, now in production at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, is a one-man show with a simple premise and big ambitions. A first-generation American, Guy is working the front desk graveyard shift at a high-end New York City hotel. The hotel is (mostly) empty and Guy is using the time to teach himself Khmer (Cambodia’s main language), in an attempt to connect with his Cambodian heritage. He has recently enrolled himself in a course and is eager to throw himself into the new language. Sounds simple, right? Well, you would hope. The Khmer language is incredibly complex with a never ending list of subtleties in pronunciation and writing. Although Guy is eager in his studies, as time goes on it begins to seem like he’ll never fully grasp the language of his parents, and if that’s true, then how can he ever really connect with them?
One of the major strengths of Chum’s play is how he allows the work to spin out into larger and more urgent questions about identity for first-generation Americans such as himself. The play’s title, Knyum, is the Khmer word for “I” as in the “I” in “I am.” In a humorous sequence, Guy describes his frustration with being unable to properly say the word and pronounce the “N” within it. That little bit of symbolism isn’t exactly subtle, but it is a thesis worth wrestling with. How is Guy supposed to connect with his Cambodian identity if he can’t through language? How is he supposed to “feel” Cambodian when it seems he is losing a race to Angelina Jolie, patron saint of Cambodia? (His joke, not mine). On the flip side of this coin, how does he fit into the America around him? In American literature, fully fleshed out depictions of Asian characters seem limited to Amy Tan. American citizens are frustratingly unaware of how the botched handling of the Vietnam War directly lead to the Cambodian genocide. Where does that leave him?
One person shows all come down to the performer and Vichet Chum is a wonderfully winning and inviting stage presence as Guy. I think that the play benefits tremendously by having Chum as both writer and performer. Though the play is not a direct autobiography you can feel Chum’s passion for the work in his performance. It’s as though it’s something he’s been looking to get off his chest for quite some time. Director KJ Sanchez makes for a fantastic collaborator with the piece, finding a staging that never feels static or overly stagey. Together, the two find just the right tone for the piece, blending the moments of comedy and poetry into a beautiful theatrical event.
What Chum’s play can offer the audience is a chance to wrestle with those big ideas about heritage, identity and America. It’s not about providing the solutions to any of his questions or issues, it’s a matter of gathering a group of people together in that place called the theater and giving everyone the chance to just think for a while, to listen to the perspective of someone unlike themselves and really try to see and understand their world. It may seem like a small step, but it’s perhaps a step we need. For tickets and more information, visit: www.mrt.org