Stage of MRT before play begins

Year Zero at MRT

Aurora and I attended a Merrimack Repertory Theatre performance for the first time. Year Zero was a dramatic and at moments comedic look at the experience of second-generation Cambodians. It takes place in Long Beach, California, the only US city with a larger Cambodian population than Lowell.

Daniel Velasco as Ruthy holding skull (Image: MRT)

Daniel Velasco as Ruthy holding skull (Image: MRT)

In it, a brother and sister (Vuthy and Ra) struggle with their mother’s recent death. Vuthy is a high-school geek who isn’t accepted by the Cambodian or Noncambodian kids in school, and Ra is a college student torn between Glenn, her Chinese boyfriend living in Berkley, and Ra, her ex-boyfriend recently released from prison.

The characters deal with the gulf of understanding among each other and with their deceased mother, the pull and influence of gang life when no alternative seems to exist, and the problem of identity and individuality. Aurora noted that it spoke to how complex dealing with the aftermath of tragedy can be: sometimes the people we are closest to are the ones we are least able to be vulnerable with. As we move forward, we create new versions of ourselves and often try to plaster over the sadness. Is the new version a lie, hiding the most important parts of our story? Or is it more wrong to define us by the sadness of our past, rather than the new life we’ve worked hard to build?

It honestly kept us guessing as to which choices each character would make, so we won’t give away any more than that.

During the play, I wondered how true it would ring to the children of refugees in Lowell. Juliette Hing-Lee, the actor playing Ra gave an interesting interview in the Boston Globe. Her experience mirrored her character in a way: her parents separated and she moved to Long Beach when she was eight. Her mother, like her character’s mother, had many siblings killed by the Khmer Rouge. She said, “The piece is extremely important because it puts into words the experience of Cambodians who came to this country and what they’ve gone through.”

However, in an after-show talk, Charles Towers, the artistic director, said that it was the only play he could find that focused not on the Cambodians who came to the US, but on their children. He also said that he hoped it wasn’t only about Cambodian-Americans, but simply about the coming of age of a brother and sister, a boyfriend, and an ex-boyfriend. To me, it succeeded on this level. In one scene, Ruthy plays Dungeons and Dragons with a friend who moved away over the phone. Having done the very same thing myself, I can’t say the gameplay was accurate, but the sentiment was very on the mark (down to goofy jokes about “Orcs chilling drinking Orc Ale in Orc 40s”).

The one thing that struck me was that the director asked how many folks were subscribers, and nearly the entire house rose their hands. This might be an effect of opening night, but I thought more people would take advantage of MRT’s $5 opening night offer (if paid same-day in cash at the box office.) There’s a similar $10 offer on the first Wednesday of each new show for Lowell residents, and I would encourage anyone wanting a unique night out to take advantage of it.

In addition, there are a number of free engagement activities scheduled for the rest of September, several of which we hope to attend:

  • Wednesday, September 17, 7:30 pm: A discussion with panelists from Lowell’s Cambodian-American community
  • Sunday, September 21, 5:00 pm: A discussion and book-signing with Seng Ty, author of Years of Zero: Coming of Age During the Khmer Rouge
  • Tuesday, Sep 23, 7:30 pm: The Luna Theater will screen Monkey Dance, a 2004 documentary about teens in Angkor Dance Troupe
  • Wednesday, September 24, 7:30 pm: A discussion with panelists from Lowell’s Cambodian-American community
  • Sunday, September 28, 5:00 pm: Presentation and discussion with Angkor Dance Troupe
  • Tuesday, Sep 30, 7:30 pm: The Luna Theater will screen Still I Strive, a documentary about a Cambodian orphanage transformed by the arts

All the activities are at the MRT except for the screenings at the Luna. Hope to see you there!


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