It is the opening week of KNYUM, the exciting new one-man MRT production that brings Vichet Chum, exquisite playwright and performer, together with Director KJ Sanchez to expanded written words into a visual experience.
We meet Guy (Vichet) working late nights at a NYC hotel while trying to learn and connect with the language of his Cambodian heritage. As he struggles with the Cambodian dictionary of squiggles, letters, and words without spaces he is “frozen in fear” that he will never learn the language and bring honor to his parents on his first visit to Cambodia planned with them.
Guy wants to translate and write KNYUM, “the story” of his heritage. His mother (mae) and father (pa) are survivors of years of genocide with U.S. occupation during the Viet Nam War and encampment under the reign of Khmer Rouge at the end of the war. Vichet reflects about that time in history and it is riveting. He asks how we know Cambodia. Is it Amy Tan or Angelina Jolie? Do we only have after-thoughts of that time? I felt stunned by his poetic, powerful words that reflected my own choices and experiences during that difficult time when we were separated by beliefs and reactions to that War.
Vichet takes us on Guy’s journey escaping his mundane existence in a set of music and brilliant reflections of lights. As his emotions express sadness, anger and pensive tones we hear his memories in voices of mae and pa and others in a poetic “quirky, funny voice” (Boston Globe). Vichet awakens reflections of his heritage in the past and returns to now as he floats awake, but in a state of dreaming, in a spectacular creative movement of lights and shadows. And the wistful meaning of a feather.
It has been exciting to watch this production expand from the first reading of the script, during rehearsals and now onto the stage. There is no intermission, and none is needed, because it would break the mood of the intense reflection of language and tradition. While at this creative production I felt quiet, pensive, touched, sad, overwhelmed as Guy and Vichet searched to awaken their heritage. I learned too that Lowell has the second largest Cambodian population in the world. And “Cambodia Town” on Plain Street in Lowell has amazing culinary and cultural offerings.
There is much to experience, contemplate and learn in this artistic MRT production. So, please get tickets for one of the performances between January 10 and February 4 to share in this deeply moving new play.
We sat down with playwright and performer Vichet Chum to talk about his journey of writing KNYUM.
What initially inspired you to begin working on KNYUM?
The genesis of the story actually came from an experience I had between my first and second year of grad school at Brown/Trinity. That summer, I attended a language intensive to learn Khmer at a Southeast Asian language institute. It was my first time formally learning my family’s language, and from day one, I knew it was a unique experience. I journaled everyday – trying best to capture my vulnerabilities and my anxieties learning this language that felt so familiar and foreign at the same time. Then, in my last year of grad school, all the students were asked to perform 30-40 minutes of anything as their final culminating recital. I began to put the pieces together for this story and found out I had something special there. I’ll never forget the first time I performed it in its initial iteration – it was perplexing and scary and rapturous. I felt like I had to keep going… and I did!
The play is inspired by your own life experience, but isn’t entirely non-fictional. How do you meld together fact and fiction and choose which moments to root in your real life and which to invent?
I don’t know! That’s why this play is so challenging to do. I began this process by wanting to give voice to my family’s story with as much truth and accuracy as possible. But at the end of the day, it is a play and there are already theatrical conventions at play that are artificial. I’m not really in a hotel. I’m on a theater set that indicates a hotel. There was a point in the process where I had to give myself the permission to really distance myself from the character of Guy to give him freedom. It was a huge turning point. After all, this play does not intend to be journalism. It intends to share a story that is based on real events. I’ve tried my very best to craft a story that has integrity, one that remains celebratory to my family and is authentic to my own story.
You get to experience the show both during the writing process and as an actor. How does also being the star of the show help you in the shaping of it — or make it more difficult?
Being both the writer and actor is simultaneously wonderful and maddening. It’s wonderful because I know where the words come from: me. I don’t have to think too hard about the intention of the words. At the same time, as the writer, I have to fight the impulse to constantly rewrite what I’ve done. In a play that isn’t your own, you have to dig for meaning and wrestle with the words you’ve been given. In a play that is your own, you just hate it all and want to rewrite what you’ve done. I’ve had to stop and allow my actor brain to take over the words and do the work of filling each word, sentence, and paragraph with meaning. I enjoy working with both hats – I just have to know when to put which one on.
Where have you drawn inspiration from in the writing of KNYUM, be it particular playwrights, plays, or anything else?
I guess this play has a little bit of Julia Cho, Will Eno, Tennessee Williams, Amy Tan, Billy Collins, John Leguizamo, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and so much of the poetic musings and downright truths of the Chums.
The play follows Guy’s journey to discover and connect with his family’s history and heritage, and it’s a reflection of your own journey. How has the actual process of writing KNYUM enhanced or directed that journey for you?
KNYUM has allowed me to interrogate my family’s history in a way that I may have taken for granted to begin with. All of our families have complicated, rich stories that deserve to be told. As a writer and a performer, I’ve always known that I’ve been endowed with a responsibility to share my family’s stories. When I began this play, I had not yet gone to Cambodia for the first time. You could say that my work on this play accelerated the process and the immediate need to go to Cambodia. And once I went, I found my ending. So, the play has been utterly precious to me. It’s pushed me along as much as I’ve pushed it along.
The play has a very gentle quality for it, even while delving into some extremely difficult topics. How did you balance the weighty nature of historical events with the tone you wanted for the play?
The story certainly tackles difficult things like the Cambodian genocide, but it’s balanced with me, the narrator, standing before an audience sharing this story because my parents did indeed survive. That proof of life should give relief and reason to celebrate for the audience. I don’t think you can write tone, I think it’s just about writing as honestly as possible. But that being said, I did want the play to be funny… and I think it is! There are family quirks, there is the awkwardness of learning a new language, there are plenty of miscommunications. I think you just have to find a balance between being convicted and making the story a shared experience.
What has the response been like from the Cambodian community?
The Cambodian community in Lowell has been very responsive so far. I’ve come into town a couple of times to meet with the wonderful people at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, the Angkor Wat Dance Troupe, and KhmerPost USA. Each time, I’m reminded of how familial the interactions are. It is like being home. After all, I think this story is not just mine, but it belongs to all Cambodians and Cambodian Americans. We share the struggle of inheriting a legacy of tragedy and survival, and honoring that complex history. I’m thrilled to share with Cambodians of all generations. This story honors their sacrifice.
How do your parents feel about the play?
My parents know that I wrote this play, that it’s happening and that I might be making fun of them… just a little. They have never seen a draft or a version of the play, but they’ve certainly been following the evolution of it. Ask me this question after they see it…
In 1842, on a trip from London to Boston, Charles Dickens visited Lowell. The squalid work conditions of the Mill Girls and their “visits by spirits” inspired some of his A Christmas Carol. When he returned to Boston on a reading tour of A Christmas Carol at the Parker House, Charles Dickens practiced in front of a mirror which is now in the mezzanine and has had sightings of Dickens’ ghost.
MRT invites you to attend A Christmas Carol while Joel Colodner (It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Going to See the Kid) narrates the life of Ebenezer Scrooge just as Charles Dickens did on his tour long ago. The costumes and set take us to London and perfectly reflects the Dickens’ era. MRT is blessed by the talent of Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian to bring such creativity to this production.
When Joel reaches into his Dickens to guide the spirit tour, he mesmerizes us. When he describes the “clutching, wrenching” Mr. Scrooge who wants “those who wish Merry Christmas be boiled in pudding with a stake in their heart,” his dexterous voice brings us into the character. When Marley arrives dragging his ponderous chains, Joel’s inventive acting lets us see their journey to the past. And, it is his acting that engages us in comedic exchanges, dramatic voices and gestures in and out of characters during the performance.
There is a sprinkle of music by bells and instruments on the stage performed by the talents of Nathan Leigh and Rebecca White. They also bring forth the singing of known and unknown carols from long ago. You may find yourself quietly humming and perhaps there may even be sing along
When we see Scrooge go with the spirits to see his past and present we are moved to reflect on our own life. When he sees the future and pleads “no, no…” about his fate, Joel stirs our sadness. Then we are elated when Mr. Scrooge realizes it is “still Christmas Day!!!” And we can share in his pleasures making peace with all around him and his family.
Most of us know this holiday tale, but for MRT’s production it is Joel Colodner who takes us to London and lets us “know” Ebenezer Scrooge and brings us on his journey with the spirits on that Christmas eve so long ago.
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Silent Sky is simply radiant. A ring of soft lights circles the stage and another hangs over the performers, standing in for the stars and blinking brighter at a key moment. Onstage, lead Alexis Bronkovic echoes their glow. Her character Henrietta Leavitt is guided not by a desire for romance, but by her calling of astronomy. While a love interest does eventually appear, he’s a minor subplot. Henrietta’s work, her ideas, and her camaraderie with her coworkers are far more central to the plot.
Another lovely way that that set informs the production is that it seems designed to suggest a telescope. The back of the stage is a small circular space lined with mirrors that is only inhabited by Henrietta’s sister Margaret, with whom she has a loving but contentious relationship. Several times while the two are separated, Margaret sits in that space, playing her piano and singing—and reflecting her light back at Henrietta. Even when they are distant stars in each other’s lives, they remain connected.
I love that the MRT followed up the very masculine play The Royale with this women-centric production, and I feel very lucky to have such high caliber theater right in my backyard.
There are moments that define when a play is ready for opening night.
One of these moments is the “Designer Run” performance before moving to the stage. The full play is performed in the rehearsal hall with Director Sean Daniels, designers, MRT staff, and cohorts as the audience. The actors wear more of their costume and use many props in the scenes. At this rehearsal, the original music by Dave Keaton is sprinkled between, and with, the actor’s lines and it is lovely. The play ends, there are soft tears and applause. Now the play can be moved to the stage to begin final rehearsals.
At the theatre, the next moment is actually a “full tech” all weekend. The crew doing sound, music, lights and so much more, coordinate their focus on the intricacy of the performance. Everyone is in awe of the set, furniture of the time and strewn with lights into the audience – it is more than beautiful. While the crew does their magic, the actors are in their fine ladies and gentleman costumes and their props have been set. The actors walk around on the stage – stretch, whisper, smile – they are clearly ready to perform their roles together. But, they must wait and wait and wait – all must be perfect before the actors step into their light. Finally, they are called into place to begin the scene. There it is – the production that is almost ready for opening night. And, it is beguiling.
In a few days there will be reviews and then opening night. It would be best to request tickets for a performance soon: it will be a success.
The rehearsals for Silent Sky are anything but silent.
It is a pleasure to watch these five talented actors bring their historic characters to life in the rehearsal hall. Developing a character of history is not an easy task, but they are passionate about their roles. They have studied the late 1800’s when women astronomers were hired by Harvard University as “assistants” and required to use a magnifying glass to perform research, which led to the discovery of star composition. Their scribbled log book and notes were ground breaking in astronomy and changed who could do this scientific research.
The actors bring humor to rehearsals for this serious history in science. They support each other, not to just keep the script on cue, but share laughter for forgotten lines and creative ad-libs along the way. This is enhanced by Director Sean Daniels, who blends in with his unique style of humor. Sean also has a keen imagination – when the scene is about a holiday he asks the actors to think about how their family would ask them to come home, which brings about sharing from the actors and real-life perspective to the scene.
The actors follow an outline on the floor which represents the stage. There are some props, others are “pretended” for now. The actors wear pieces of their costumes to be “in character” which can be challenging because they are both in the play period and the now. They have known their lines for a long time, becoming their character in style, dialect and persona has been the challenge.
The actors share insight about scenes with the director which becomes a series of repetitions and patience shifting a scene. There is professional respect between the actors and director which is so needed for the success of going from rehearsals to the stage. There is also a supportive, talented crew hovering over all that is needed for the play. And too, playwright Lauren Gunderson sits quietly and watches her work unfold by these talented artists.
The actors recently made an appearance at UMass Lowell with astrophysics faculty and astronomy club and also chatted with WCAP radio host. Lauren Gunderson’s interview about the play is on the MRT website. So, this production is not just about learning lines in the rehearsal hall, it is about creating a realistic reflection of this brilliant contribution to science by women.
How and when did you first learn about Henrietta, and what about her story really interested you?
I found a book about her – a very thin volume – called Miss Leavitt’s Stars. It was on a table of books in the basement of the Strand Bookstore in New York. I kind of collect stories of women scientists and I didn’t recognize the scientist, a woman named Henrietta Leavitt. And with further investigation I realized this could be a play, not just because the history was interesting and the science was interesting, but because there were such great metaphors that could be made theatrical. The math and music being of a similar root, and the feminism and activism of that time, the sisterhood, light and pattern. And because we don’t know a ton about Henrietta, and for a playwright that’s good news in some cases, so I can make up some of the fun stuff. [Laughs] But most of this is based in truth.
What is it that has you collecting stories of women scientists?
A lot of it is because I’ve found for a long time that science makes great theater; it’s very dramatic. There are moments of discovery, there’s eureka moments, you can stage them, you can embody them, you can hear and see them, and it’s very actable. Science may not seem like an obvious choice to put on stage over and over again, but for almost two decades I’ve found so much inspiration in the stories of science – especially women scientists, because the deck is stacked against them more than men. They have more to prove, more at risk, and the presumptions are so constant against them, so their victories and triumphs are sweeter. Over and over again I find stories of women so compelling, and I just can’t not write a play about them, and Henrietta was one of those.
You’ve talked about why stories about science make good theatre. What makes theatre good for science?
Because I’m not a scientist I’m not the best person to answer, but several of my friends are and my husband is a scientist. And I do think that any artform comes out of a desire to see the world differently, to interpret it and explore it in a way that regular life doesn’t encourage. That would seem to be good for scientists – thinking differently, seeing through somebody else’s perspective, experiencing the human condition in an alternate way. I think it helps creativity, broadening awareness, and making emotions more acceptable; there are emotional truths that are just as important as intellectual truths, so I hope that’s part of it. I also think there’s great community building and cohort building in theatre: we’re all coming together in one place to watch a story. And if it’s a play about science, oftentimes scientists are invited to give talkbacks and be part of the show, and I think that does a lot in terms of continuing to make sure that citizens have access to scientists and stories of science, so that it doesn’t feel like something happening in a lab that doesn’t impact everyday life. Hopefully plays about science bring more awareness to the humanity behind science and how necessary and urgent the work of science still is.
There’s an accessibility that art gives to stories. It seems like people find science topics remote in a way.
Yeah, it adds heart to a field that’s often described as cold and practical. But especially now – not to make everything about Trump, but the administration is cutting science funding left and right – stories like this remind us of the pattern-breaking, huge shift that science gives us in terms of our ability to understand ourselves and save ourselves. And that’s massively important – critical – to our society. And stories of science – and women in science, people of color in science, and on and on and on – makes it even more important for us to hear those stories now.
You’ve talked about how there’s a lot of blanks in what we know about Henrietta, but that you feel that the play is still very much rooted in truth, and that the question of truth is a huge part of the actual narrative. When you’re adapting a story like that, how do you decide what the most important moments of truth are? And where you get to bend and be creative?
The main thing is to tell an unforgettable story, so whatever I have to do for that is generally what I try to do. But if you’re telling a story about science, the science has to be right, and the historical events of note must stay accurate. When Einstein’s papers were discovered, and the access the women would have had to that knowledge, that remains the same. The suffragette movement and the way women were treated in society, all of that is accurate. What I shifted are some of the personal details of Henrietta’s life to help tell the story that I wanted to tell and hopefully help make it more unforgettable. Henrietta’s mother was actually more like the role I’ve created as her sister; that relationship would have made an excellent play on its own, but it wasn’t the play I wanted to write. I wanted to write about literal and figurative sisters, so giving Henrietta a sister that could complement her experience with a more traditional life was important to me. And then there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know. She did write a letter from an ocean liner, so we know that she went on one. I don’t know where, what her experience was, or why she did it – all of that is the fun I get to have as a playwright. And the male character is kind of an amalgam of lots of the male scientists there at the time: not choosing one person, but creating a love story for her. We don’t know that it happened, but we don’t know that it didn’t. [Laughs]
There are so many women in the play, and they each seem to have a different type of journey. How do you weave all of those together into one story?
That’s the work of a good play, right? To have some converging but independent journeys for each of these characters. If this were a play about men, we wouldn’t question it, but you have to note it if it’s a play about women. Oftentimes we’re given one character, maybe two, but certainly not a handful of complex, individual women that are after different things and on different journeys. So that was the joy and, frankly, the liberation of writing a play like this: I got to tell the story of friends and sisters and colleagues and activists and scientists – and they’re all women! It’s so cool! [Laughs] So yeah, I think part of what the work hopes to do is show that diversity of female experience, that of course you can’t write a play with one woman in it and have them represent all of womanhood, just like you couldn’t do that with a man. So hopefully it’s a good example of the diversity of experience.
Why did you think it was important to include Henrietta’s hearing aid in the stage directions?
Henrietta and Annie actually both had hearing loss; Annie Cannon had a hearing aid as well. But then it felt like this would be a play about deafness, and I don’t feel quite equipped to write that, so I just gave Henrietta the hearing loss. I think it’s quite important to show somebody that has a different ability on stage. And for her, oftentimes they said that she would take the hearing aid out when she was working, which would give her much more concentration than some of her colleagues: you know, working in a small room with twenty women and men up and down the stairs outside. So in some ways her disability was an ability, which was really interesting.
The last time that MRT audiences saw one of your plays was in 2015 with I and You. What were the different challenges in writing Silent Sky versus that play?
Silent Sky came first, so I and You was a divergence for me, and it still really is. I write a lot of history plays, a lot of stories of women in science in different decades, and I and You was – and still is – a really unique play of mine. It’s contemporary and dramatic and has a big twist and is about teenagers; it’s kind of a music box of a play that appears small and kind of bursts open at the end. So they were completely different processes, but in both cases I knew where the story was going before I wrote it. I knew where we were going to end up. And for Henrietta, because I have history to guide me, I knew what her discovery would be, and how it would look, and how it would exist in the theatrical imagining that was my job to figure out how to put on stage. And with I and You, because there was kind of a secret at the heart of the play, it was really setting up and hopefully earning this big ending I wanted to try and pull off. But they’re both about love, right? And they’re both about loss, and they’re both about resilience and needing to be known by your friends and the people you love, and kind of in some ways about the awe of the universe, of the way the world can actually work. Very different kinds of awe, but still, I think there are a lot of similarities to a lot of my work that kind of land in those categories.
What about this story felt like it would uniquely work for the stage, and how did you take the story and craft it into something really theatrical?
It’s about pattern and repetition and tone, and I realized that those things could be made musical, so then I put music as a thread in this play – her sister is a pianist and plays at the church, so a hymn would of course be quite common for her to play. But then what if the music becomes how we articulate this scientific discovery? It was stuff like that started as an ancillary element of the story that became this sort of essential core element of how to tell it on stage. And it’s what I’m actually most proud of in some ways: how it allows science to be more than fact, how it makes science visceral, and it makes it beautiful, and those I think are really important. It will be rare for some people to walk away being like, “Wow, that astronomy was the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen in a long time!”
And of course the element of light: it’s a play about stars, so how does lighting play into the scene. I’ve seen this production done in a thousand different ways, all sorts of manner of interpretation while consistently asking its designers to really innovate.
So the musical aspect of Henrietta’s discovery, that was from history?
Well, the discovery itself is in some ways musical – you can think of it as music. But the discovery that she made was probably decidedly non-musical: partly because she was deaf, but also because it was math, it was nothing but math for her. But the idea that math can also be musical if you’re someone like her sister Margaret, who is a musician so can interpret the same data in a different way. I also kind of like that, that pattern can be mathematical or musical.
You’ve had the pleasure of being able to see so many productions of this work. What are you looking forward to most about Sean and his team and their vision?
What I love about Sean’s genius as a director is that his productions are always so full of heart, but also so full of wit and humanity. He’s just one of the funniest directors I’ve ever worked with. He knows how comedy is one of the pillars of humanity and human interaction, and it’s not about being funny, it’s about being real. So I think that is something I’m really excited to see with this play, which when people hear about it, they’ll probably think it’s pretty serious, right? It’s turn of the century women, they wear those high collars and corsets and they’re talking about math and this sounds like no fun at all, right? [Laughs] But Sean is so good at making the human experience beautiful and funny and honest. So I think that’s going to be just extraordinary.