Knyum Wins Applause at MRT

“I been given such a warm welcome in Lowell!” said Vichet Chum, the writer and actor of “Knyum,” the world premiere play currently performed at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. “I was aware that Lowell has the second largest Cambodian population in the U.S., but the reception for myself and for the play has been super supportive here.” The play runs until February 4.

The son of survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, Chum has written much of his experience into the character of Guy, a young man who struggles with understanding himself and his family legacy. “What do you inherit?” he asks, as he explores the expectations of his parents and of his American and Cambodian identity. He answer includes the legacy of his family’s suffering during the genocide as well as the resilience that transcends that suffering. Pronunciation of the play’s title, “Knyum,” meaning “I” in Khmer, is an apt focus of his musings.

The sets and effective lighting take us from the hotel lobby where Guy works the night shift at the start of the play, to Cambodia where he returns to visit with his family at the end. In between, Guy studies the Khmer language in preparation for his trip, and talks with excitement about his desire to write about his family’s journey – “the Cambodian’s people’s Grapes of Wrath.” The play is enriched with imaginative dream sequences, during which Guy reflects on his experiences and on cultural symbols.

Guy speaks directly to the audience, establishing a powerful and intimate connection. During the play he occasionally takes on the voices of his mother, his father, his Khmer language teacher and people in Cambodia. The lighting and superimposed scenes make the transitions clear and compelling, as these other characters are brought effectively into the story. Guy tells us that the immigrant experience includes feeling “like a perpetual foreigner” and “an innocent bystander” to world events that define family and community experience. The intensity of the story is relieved by humor throughout the play. The audience at the January 20th performance reacted with laughter at the stories of parent-child communication and cultural misunderstandings which have universal recognition.

Audience members who are not Cambodian were impacted by the play. “It enlightened me about the Cambodian people,” said Tom Pagel of Newburyport. “It’s time to go back to the history books! And it was great to see this performance about family relationships that are so loving.”

“I didn’t want it to end!” said Suzanne Cromwell of Lowell. “It was breathtaking, just beautiful. I just want to meet his parents, have tea with his parents! They obviously produced a sensitive and creative artist.” She was especially struck by Guy’s mother’s comment as performed by Chum. “I loved that sentence – ‘We want you to be better than us.’ As a mother myself, I had to think about the legacy that we leave to our children.” Cromwell is the coordinator of the Lowell Film Collaborative and said that it can be difficult to achieve the right balance, in a one-person show, of a minimalist or a complicated setting, and said the play was “just right” in that regard.
Chum said that “conversations are happening” about future performances of the play in other cities.