As people walked, without knowing where they were going nor how long they would be on the road, the little girls kept asking, “Are we going home now?”
“It’s only for three days,” their parents had replied. But it would be a lifetime of fear, pain and hunger before the little girls would return to Phnom Penh.
Chhon Sina, Kauv Sotheary and Morm Sokly were children in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge herded thousands of people out of Phnom Penh, telling them it was “only for three days.”
Now 41-year-old actresses and teachers at the Royal University of Fine Arts, the three women have turned their childhood memories of that era into a play.
Entitled “3 Years, 8 Months, 20 Days” after the duration of the Pol Pot regime, the play is presented Saturday and Sunday at Sovanna Phum Theater at 7:30 pm, in Khmer with English subtitles.
In a production the more poignant for its simplicity, they speak in short sentences—more poetry than narration—their faces almost stoic, dressed in Khmer Rouge-style uniforms but dark blue instead of black.
Accompanied by singer Nam Narem and singer/musician Ieng Sakuna, they speak in the present, recalling facts as children would, thrown into events they could not comprehend.
There is Kauv Sotheary’s 2-year-old sister who gets ill. “Her skinny hands keep touching my chest and her eyes open at me. There is nothing I can do,” she says in the play.
She died, breaking Kauv Sotheary’s 9-year-old heart.
“Mother carries me,” says Morm Sokly. “Mother drops me. Mother falls down.” Morm Sokly would lose both her parents.
“Maybe it is a dream,” Chhon Sina says. “Everything is a dream. I will wake up in the silence and never sleep again—or dream.”
The idea of the play came up when Fred Frumberg, director of the NGO Amrita Performing Arts, invited Annemarie Prins to give a workshop and stage a play in Cambodia.
A director, writer and actress who has been a familiar face of stage and screen in The Netherlands for decades, Prins agreed to the workshop.
But before committing herself to a play, she wanted to find out whether Cambodian performers would be comfortable working with her and her with them. “Otherwise I would not have done it,” she said.
Prins gave the workshop a year ago, saw that they could work together, and asked a group of actresses to write about their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime. Back in The Netherlands, she selected three actresses and their texts as the basis for the play and started to work on the script.
“I read and read and read,” Prins said. “I wanted it to be a very personal performance, like a tale, a theatrical tale,” of the three women’s lives, she said.
Ferry Smidt, a Dutch opera and theater stage designer, had come with her for the workshop. To get ideas for the set, he said, “I took lots and lots of photos.”
He toyed with several concepts and finally settled on basic elements: sand would cover the stage, bamboo the walls and a pond would stretch the whole length of the stage.
The Dutch Fund for the Amateur and Performing Arts agreed to fund the play, which Amrita would produce.
So, Prins and Ferry returned to Cambodia in early January for five weeks of rehearsals.
“I had never been so happy in my work for years,” said Prins, who found the actresses both talented and easy to work with. “Here, I had a sense that my profession matters.”
Smidt, who expected skepticism at his request to build a 5-meter-long water pond on Sovanna Phum’s stage, was actually met with enthusiasm, he said.
Ieng Sakuna wrote original music to add to existing pieces during the play.
For props, the three actresses have block of clay they use at the start of the play to fashion characters they line up on the edge of the stage, recalling residents marching out of Phnom Penh. They keep the clay with them throughout the play—the burden they cannot leave behind.
At times, Nam Narem aims a small camera at actresses, projecting giant black-and-white close-ups on the back wall.
Toward the end, the three women huddle together, recalling battles as Vietnamese forces pushed the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border in 1979.
“May the wind take all my pain away,” lament Nam Narem and Ieng Sakuna, as photographs of people who never returned are projected on the wall.
But the three little girls survived, and the play ends on a joyful note.
“I never expected to survive the Pol Pot regime,” said Kauv Sotheary in an interview.
“That regime deeply affected human beings’ minds and growth —that regime demoralized Cambodian people.”
Regardless of the actual pain they feel each time they perform, they consider vital to do so.
“All Cambodians, old and young who went through the Pol Pot regime should stand up together and speak of their harsh life during that brutal regime,” said Chhon Sina.
Maybe it would make leaders of other countries stop killing their own, she said.
Admission to the performance is free, but seating is limited.