Rooted and Roots-less: “KNYUM”

Photo by Meghan Moore.

 

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Written by Vichet Chum
Directed by KJ Sanchez

Venue: 50 East Merrimack Street
Lowell, MA
January 10 – February 4, 2018
MRT on Facebook

Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Lowell, MA) We owe our individual existences to thousands of coincidences in history, but our identities are forged through careful curation. Many find their identities come preformed for them, whether
they like it or not, but some, like second-generation immigrants, must sort early in life through
conflicting information and cultural influences to find who they are.
The search for immigrant identity is the focus of the intensely relatable one-man show, “Knyum,”
which recently completed its premiere run at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Through the
emotionally open performance of Vichet Chum, who is also the show’s playwright, we are drawn
into one young man’s struggle to reconcile his dual identities as a Cambodian-American.
Chum portrays Guy, an overeducated night-shift desk clerk stationed near a hotel elevator. Guy
has an overwhelming need to belong, and it shows even in the smallest interactions in his job.
While he realizes he is little more than a talking potted plant for the passing guests, Guy is still
aware of guests’ possible preconceived notions, and he finds himself perfectly enunciating
every word he speaks in his native tongue, English, to make sure they know he is an American.
At the same time, he finds himself the lone person of Cambodian background, save for the
teacher, in a Cambodian language class, and he feels he is letting his teacher down because he
lacks the basic prononciation to even say “I”.

For Guy, this quest to belong in both cultures is complicated by a sense of survivor’s guilt.
Chum relates in unsentimental detail the horrors that Guy’s parents endured during the
genocidal reign of Pol Pot. Guy feels he must make his life worth the pain that his parents, and
millions of other Cambodians, endured.

One-person shows can be awkward affairs, especially if the playwright is also the lead actor, but
Chum and director KJ Sanchez largely avoid many pitfalls of excess and schmaltz. There are a
few moments in the script that are perhaps a bit too on the nose, like when Guy, in a dream,
attempts to speak Cambodian only to find Coca-Cola coming out of his mouth. Also, the staging
sometimes veers towards a flashiness that distracts from the emotional heartbeat that Chum
creates on stage. These superficial blemishes do little, however to detract from what we realize
is the universal story of the quest for self. This is one of the few young plays that I plan to track
to see if a later production might show more confidence in the source material, because both
the script and Chum’s performance are worth the cost of readmission.

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