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…
KNYUM runs January 10 – February 4, 2018.