It’s 1978 in northwestern Cambodia and an elderly couple is starving.
The husband has stolen a chicken and prepares to eat it with his wife. But the wife, although she hasn’t eaten in days, is too scared to eat the meal.
The play is one of a series devised and performed by actors from the National Theater for the show, “Night, Please Go Faster,” opening tonight at Phnom Penh’s French Cultural Center.
For Sandab Nou, 58, the experience described in “The Moment Most Feared” was the climax of a year of appalling terror. She and her family had been driven out of the capital in 1975 with the rest of the city’s population and forced to settle in Pursat province. At the start of 1978, when famine tightened its grip on the country, all 10 of her children, ages 8 to 18, died of starvation and disease.
Later that year, her husband was taken away. Sandab Nou was convinced he would be tortured and executed. She begged the leader of her commune to let her follow him and, for reasons she still doesn’t understand, he let her go.
When she arrived at the reeducation center in Pursat’s Bakan district, she found the area was controlled by Khmer Rouge soldiers and, “for some reason they were not killing people.”
The couple survived.
The players say devising the drama was sometimes traumatic, that they often broke down in tears as they recalled private tragedies. But Sandab Nou, a straight-backed, youthful-looking woman, said the experience has been a good one.
“I want to be reminded all the time,” she said. “I don’t want to forget—I cannot forget.
“When you have suffering inside your heart, you use drama for people to listen to you, to hear you, to see what happened in your life,” she said. “It makes you feel better.”
Catherine Filloux, a New York-based playwright who is directing the production with money from the Asian Cultural Council and the Cultural Center, posed a question at the start of the project: “If you died tomorrow, what story would you want to tell the world?”
The performers came back with a series of nine short dramas, all but two of which dwell on their sufferings under the Khmer Rouge.
In Bunrong Seng’s piece, “Because of Hunger,” he recalls a friend who shared a stolen potato with him and then, starving, returned to steal more. While Bunrong Seng watched from a hiding place, his friend was caught and led away to be clubbed to death, his body left to be eaten by dogs.
In “The Boat That Saved Lives,” by Chantha Sok, a panic-stricken family slip away from their labor camp in a stolen boat. In “Lamentation of a Widow,” an almost wordless piece, Prak Vanny recalls her husband being taken away by the Khmer Rouge in 1976.
The title piece, “Night, Please Go Faster” by Yim Monika, is set just a few years ago in Phnom Penh. A girl returns to her home, a hut she built with the grudging permission of the landowners, her distant relatives. Lonely, poor and scared, the girl spends the night praying before two photos of her dead parents.
In real life, Yim Monika’s father, a senior official in the Lon Nol regime, was ‘disappeared’ in the early 1970s, she said. Her mother died of starvation soon after the Khmer Rouge took power.
After talking with other members of the cast, the 31-year-old actress and waitress decided her experiences could best be summed up by re-enacting a single night in her solitary home.
The technique of workshopping simple ideas into compelling drama isn’t without its pitfalls.
In a run-through of a piece titled “The Black Book,” in which the devil is punished by ghosts for sins against the Cambodian people, the guest audience broke out in giggles.
“I just want to ask about the moaning sounds,” Filloux said after the rehearsal. “Are they supposed to have a comic effect?”
The company decided to try the piece again, this time with “some high-pitched wailing and some lower moaning,” which Filloux thought would give the performance more gravitas. Kry Onn, who played the devil, wanted some changes, too.
“We’ve got to work on the movement,” he told the cast. “People have to move a little more so they don’t get stuck in one place on the stage.”
He also wanted a change in props. “Instead of the cauldron, I’m going to have a case full of money,” he said. “You know, like corruption.”
The cast tried the piece again, but still weren’t satisfied. Later they decided to abandon it altogether.
Yim Monika, 31, worries this kind of show won’t appeal to Cambodian audiences. She worked on another French-funded production several years ago in which she also performed a series of short, realistic dramas. The audience grew restless and began to pelt the cast with rotten vegetables, she said.
“One said, ‘If you need money that bad, I’ll give it to you, but you don’t have to act in some crazy thing like that,’” she recalled.
She turned that humiliating experience into “Monika’s Refusal,” in which her character refuses to perform a scene because she thinks an audience reared on karaoke, pop concerts and TV won’t respect her.
All of the performers make less than $15 a month at their regular jobs at the National Theater. They work other jobs—in construction, waiting tables or running small businesses—to earn enough money to support themselves and their families. They perform infrequently, usually for short-term projects like the one organized by Filloux.
“There are artists in Cambodia everywhere, but there’s no support,” said Domnang Pen, a Cambodian-American who has followed the Cambodian art scene since returning here three years ago and who volunteered to help Filloux on “Night, Please Go Faster.”
He remembers when Yim Monika got pelted with vegetables. The performers got a couple of weeks of work, he said, and then returned to their old jobs.
“At the end [of the project], the players got $5 each in an envelope,” he said. “That’s the problem. That’s not going to help the arts in Cambodia.”
Filloux’s project pays substantially more—$3 a day for 20 days of rehearsals and $20 for each performance. And Filloux hopes some time to return to Cambodia and organize another project with the same cast—“if I can come up with the money,” she said.
“Night, Please Go Faster” will be performed with a short play by Filloux, “Photographs from S-21” tonight and Sunday at 6, Wednesday at 6:30 pm and next Saturday at 4 pm. All tickets are $1, except for tonight’s gala opening, which is $5.