The show “See You Yesterday” starts simply enough: An artist walks atop a ladder and talks to the audience, some of the very few words that will be spoken during the one-hour performance.
“Every day, we rehearse to become normal again,” he says.
But the country’s past keeps flaring up. As a teacher guides circus students through acrobatic acts, a man with a haunted look on his face walks in, accusing her of having killed his family during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The next scene transports the audience back to 1975: more than a dozen confused people are being herded by this woman and other Khmer Rouge guards shouting orders.
What follows is a series of scenes based on actual events during the regime, staged soberly through theater, contemporary dance and circus acts by professional performers and students from the arts organization Phare Ponleu Selpak.
Combining the physical ability of athletes with the dramatic talent of actors, the 19 artists reenact horrific episodes that were commonplace while Pol Pot ruled the country.
In one scene, a man suddenly regains consciousness to find himself under the corpses of people killed by Khmer Rouge guards, the recreation of a memory of one artist’s father. After being “punished” by the guards and left for dead, the man finds the strength to get up and flee.
“The tableaux we stage are their parents’, their relatives’ stories,” said Khuon Det, director of Phare’s Performing Art School and associate director of the show, which premiered on Friday and is being presented Saturday night at the International School of Phnom Penh.
The project goes back to 2009, when Mr. Det first met Michael Lessac, an American theater, film and television director. Mr. Lessac had founded Global Arts Corps in the 2000s with the idea of using theater to help people come to terms with their past in countries that went through war and conflict. The group had previously done projects in South Africa and Ireland.
“The craft of theater makes it possible to create a safe space for putting all the truths on the table,” Mr. Lessac said Wednesday. By opening this dialogue, people can own the past and eventually move on, he said.
“I grew up in New York where words like forgiveness didn’t really apply,” he said. “There were many gang wars and there were many street wars…. If we got beaten up one day, then we had to come back and figure out [how] to not get beaten up the next day.”
But his perspective changed after talking to South African human-rights activist Desmond Tutu about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched in his country to expose human rights violations committed during Apartheid. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate explained to Mr. Lessar that his motivation for advocating for forgiveness was not because he believed people to be fundamentally good. One should consider forgiveness, Mr. Lessar recalled him saying, “for the very truth that everybody, that all people are capable of the worst atrocities on the face of the earth.”
This is demonstrated in a scene in “See You Yesterday” when a man starts beating another lying on the ground to prove his commitment to a Khmer Rouge guard closely watching him, fear turning him cruel.
At Phare’s request, Mr. Lessar embarked on the project in Cambodia around five years ago with the idea of having the circus students and artists build the show out of what they learned while talking to their families about life under the Khmer Rouge.
“Through their imagination, these young people have tried to make sense of the fragmented pieces of memory that they have been able to pluck from the air in a country that is more comfortable with silence than trying to understand what the past was about,” Mr. Lessar said.
In the play, performers dressed in shades of gray move with an economy of gestures that conveys the fear that consumed people living during the regime. At one point, the sound of their pounding feet illustrates the inhumane pace imposed on workers in rice fields. When one woman in a row of workers stops moving, the others go around her, not daring to stop for a second.
Color is used sparingly, representing rare signs of life. When a woman flees with a newborn— the other performers forming a human mound for her to climb and escape—she carries the baby in a bright pink wrap.
The work was directed by Mr. Lessac, assisted by Global Arts Corps artists, with Mr. Det overseeing the circus segments. Dancers and choreographers Chumvan Sodhachivy and Nam Narim from Amrita Performing Arts directed the dance portions.
But the show was shaped by the performers. “This is a story about the past and they have turned it into a story of hope,” Mr. Lessar said.
The play ends with the haunted from the start of the show facing the woman who was once his oppressor and then walking together toward the rest of the cast, rejoining a community that was once torn apart.