KNYUM is unlike anything else New England theatre currently has to offer — in the best possible way.
KNYUM, written and performed by Vichet Chum. Directed by KJ Sanchez. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre located at 50 East Merrimack Street in Lowell, MA, through February 4.
By Erik Nikander
The idea that the United States of America serves as a melting pot for the world’s cultures has long persisted in the country’s collective imagination. The image is admirably idealistic, but it has its faults, particularly the suggestion that a multitude of cultures are being melded together into a homogenous mass. In reality, even when a culture’s individual members become part of the American flock, the culture they come from never truly melts away.
Guy, the central character of Vichet Chum’s one-man show KNYUM (now receiving its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre) is a child of immigrants, a Cambodian-American who has never been to Cambodia. He doesn’t speak Khmer, Cambodia’s language, although he’s been taking classes in order to better understand and connect with the country his parents were forced to leave in the wake of genocide. Frustrated by America’s general ignorance of Cambodia and its history, Guy spends the long hours at his graveyard-shift job at a hotel reception desk writing what he calls “the great Cambodian-American opus.” In this work, he hopes to integrate the cultures that made him who he is, and shatter America’s indifference to the history of his people.
KNYUM is a semi-autobiographical work, drawn from Chum’s experiences as a second-generation Cambodian immigrant, though this cultural exploration is hardly the play’s only point of interest. Chum himself is a terrific storyteller, both in terms of the script he’s crafted and how he makes his drama come across so vibrantly on stage. He zips from character to character with ease; he conveys Guy’s passions and anxieties, but also embodies the deep-rooted convictions of his mother and father. The performer tends to keep things light and energetic, but he is more than willing to delve into darker topics. For example, he discusses American foreign policy’s disastrous impact on Cambodia and its surrounding nations in a way that’s bracingly honest but never hopeless.
The play may be Chum’s attempt to create the cross-cultural masterwork that Guy dreams of, but the evening is more than a history of Cambodia. It’s a rich, detailed portrait of a distinctive family that also offers insights into the complexities of language. Some of the script’s most compelling moments deal with Guy’s struggles to connect with Khmer, the tongue his parents grew up speaking. Without the ability to understand the language of the Cambodian people, Guy reasons, how can he properly convey their stories? Chum’s awe at the force and beauty of words is palpable, and his warm, affable stage presence makes the power of language theatrically vibrant.
Though the play’s set is relatively small, the proceedings never feel claustrophobic, thanks in large part to KJ Sanchez’s direction. On the one hand, KNYUM contains little elaborate choreography, apart from a few scenes in which Guy awkwardly recreates some traditional Cambodian dances. Still, Chum’s performance manages to generate considerable energy. Often, Guy just moves about the stage and performs domestic tasks as he narrates, wiping down the reception desk or arranging pamphlets on the tables. This custodian role suits the character perfectly; after all, he considers himself a caretaker of his family’s culture. Sanchez also knows that the audience needs to be given quiet moments to help process this emotional journey. In a scene towards the end of the play, Chum sits humbly on the edge of the stage, his legs dangling into darkness — the connection he makes with the audience is subtle yet profound.
That’s not to say that the show lacks visual flourishes. At various points, stunning images are projected seamlessly onto the set. Designed by Jon Haas, these pictures accentuate key emotional interludes, such as when Guy fantasizes about visiting Cambodia for the first time, or when he begins to feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of learning Khmer. While the show could probably work just as well without these visuals, the pictorials add considerable pizazz to the proceedings. The earthy, muted colors and angular geometry of Dan Conway’s scenic work contrast well with the more fantastic visions the projections conjure up, such as a bubbling sea of Coca-Cola. The use of technology never feels obtrusive or distracting.
One technical element of the production that could use some modulation is the audio mixing. While David Remedios’s sound design is fitting and imaginative (incorporating, for instance, clips of air travel and atmospheric music to accentuate Guy’s journey to his family’s homeland), the volume levels can be a tad unbalanced. Several sound effects came off as harsher, perhaps more jarring, than they were perhaps intended to be. The overall technical presentation of KNYUM is so seamless that this relatively minor blemish, which can be easily fixed, called extra attention to itself.
MRT’s production of KNYUM succeeds in a number of ways; it is an engaging drama that also makes a strong argument for the inclusion of diverse voices in the theater. This show is unlike anything else New England theatre currently has to offer — in the best possible way. Kudos to MRT for helping to foster an atmosphere of curiosity and openness about other cultures, and for enabling audiences to experience a too-often overlooked part of the world onstage.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.