The irony and conflict inherent in such an epic moral quandary would make good drama anywhere. In Lowell, Mass., where Merrimack Repertory Theatre staged an adaptation of actor and author Dr. Haing S. Ngor’s own story of his survival of the Cambodian holocaust, the drama takes on particular weight.
David Kent, now in his third season as artistic director of Merrimack Rep, says that in the past three years the company has rededicated itself to telling stories of the Lowell community. With the staging of The Survivor: A Cambodian Odyssey, the theatre has taken a giant step in that direction. Cambodians make up more than 20 percent of Lowell’s total population–in fact, with an estimated 25,000 people, it has the second largest Cambodian population of any city in the U.S. Kent felt that MRT had to embrace this community in a meaningful way.
“This city has developed an ability to incorporate immigrants into its fabric–though not perfectly–even in the case of the Cambodian population,” Kent observes. “One in four students in the Lowell schools is Cambodian, and one in three Southeast Asian. And many of these are not just immigrants, but survivors of a holocaust.”
And so it was that Kent began searching for the vehicle to tell the story of that part of the theatre’s community. He enlisted playwright Jon Lipsky to supervise the creation of a script. Kent wanted to find paths into the Cambodian community of Lowell and harvest original, personal stories that could be forged into a theatrical event.
One of the difficulties of doing so was that few Cambodian survivors ever speak of their experiences, Kent says. “There was not only a cultural barrier, but the holocaust experience to overcome,” he says. Or, as Lipsky notes, “There’s a compact of silence surrounding the events. The subject matter makes it extremely difficult to get stories. There’s a natural resistance, and they don’t tell the stories that are most meaningful without trust. It looked like a monumental task.”
Lipsky found his way in “by accident,” however, while in a bookstore looking for material about Cambodia. Haing S. Ngor’s now out-of-print autobiography, A Cambodian Odyssey, written with Roger Warner, told such a compelling tale of love and survival that Lipsky knew upon reading it that he’d found what he calls the spine of the play.
“Ngor’s story has at the center of it an incredibly moving love story, which makes the horror all the more poignant,” Lipsky says. “Plus, there’s an interesting antagonist, Pen Tip, who incorporates many of the figures who crossed Ngor’s trail. And finally, Ngor is the only Cambodian besides Dith Pran and Prince Sihanouk whom Americans know.”
Dr. Haing S. Ngor is in fact often confused with fellow Cambodian Dith Pran, the real-life former assistant to journalist Sydney Schanberg, whom Ngor played in the movie The Killing Fields. After the doctor was forced to become a slave in the rice fields and finally a manure spreader, Ngor ultimately escaped and discovered fame in America when he won an Oscar for his performance opposite Sam Waterston and John Malkovich.
By virtue of his existence as a city dweller in Phnom Penh, Ngor, like Pran and millions of other Cambodians, was one of the “new” persons under the Khmer Rouge regime that toppled General Lon Nol’s government in 1975. The three million inhabitants of Phnom Penh were forced to evacuate within hours of takeover by the Khmer Rouge. The “new” persons were the last in line for food distribution and first in line for torture and execution. An estimated 1.2 to 2 million Cambodians died in the Khmer Rouge work camps. By denying his former status as a doctor and posing as a taxi driver named Samnang (“Lucky”), Ngor survived. But not without enduring near starvation, torture and the loss of his wife and most of his family. To this day Ngor defines himself as a “survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That is who I am.”
The Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed the family, village and religious ties that were the traditional fabric of Cambodian life, in order to begin a new communist existence with devotion only to the common good of the state. In the process, they committed atrocities as horrific as any in history. Ngor describes Khmer soldiers using bayonets to rip open the pregnant bellies of women suspected of being wives of intellectuals, then yanking out the unborn fetuses by hand and hanging them like windchimes from the roof. The film The Killing Fields, Ngor feels, hardly went far enough in depicting the horror.
One of the major difficulties in adapting Ngor’s book, Lipsky notes, is communicating the extent of the horror without numbing the audience. “If we get people only thinking, instead of feeling, that this is a horrible thing, then we’ve failed,” he says. “We have to allow people to have their feeling without going numb.”
Lipsky points out that as an autobiography, A Cambodian Odyssey is told from Ngor’s very specific point of view. To create a play with the requisite dramatic conflict and character development, Lipsky had to fill in the points of view of Ngor’s wife, My Huoy, and nemesis, Pen Tip. To insure artistic license, Kent and Lipsky got Ngor’s blessing to adapt his 500-page work freely, and consulted him numerous times as well.
Kent and Lipsky knew that they would need help to represent the culture of Cambodia accurately on stage. And while they spent time in Buddhist temples and interacted with the Cambodian community when possible, the play owes much of its authenticity to the input of Samnang Wilson, who acted as a special assistant to the director.
Wilson, a Cambodian survivor of the holocaust who lives in Boxford, Mass., says her own story is “not that different” from the drama on stage. Born in Phnom Penh and only 18 years old in 1975, Wilson lost her parents in the conflict, and then her husband was executed 15 days after her son was born. She escaped to Thailand in 1980, subsequently making her way to the U.S.
“I was afraid of reliving my own past,” she admits, still emotional in recounting her reluctance to join the project. Ultimately, she decided it was more important to help tell the Cambodian story to the world. It was that element of memory that fascinated Lipsky. “How does one go about remembering a holocaust?” he asks. “It takes an act of will to go back into your worst moments.”
The catalytic period in the development of the play actually came during a six-day workshop in January of this year, during which members of the Lowell Cambodian community were invited to observe and comment on the play-in-progress. Participating in the workshop were actors Ernest Abuba, who plays Pen Tip, and Dawn Akemi Saito, who plays Huoy.
At one point during the workshop, Lipsky recounts, there was an impromptu conference with Samnang Wilson and the local Cambodians about a moment taken from the book in which Ngor and other survivors take out their revenge on a stray Khmer Rouge, ultimately decapitating him and installing his head under a sign reading “Khmer Rouge, enemy forever.”
Perpetual revenge rejected
While Americans like to think of things in black and white, Lipsky notes, Cambodians see ambiguity. The culture avoids directness. The Cambodians at the workshop explained that actually verbalizing “Khmer Rouge, enemy forever,” was to consign the nation to perpetual kum, or revenge. “If you say ‘forever,’ that means our sons and our son’s sons will have to have revenge and it will never end,” they said, suggesting a change.
The change was made. And the play continued to change through the rehearsal period. The director and playwright both credit the actors with invaluable help and influence as it took shape.
In the case of classical Cambodian dancer Somaly Hay, the input was more personal. A former court dancer in Phnom Penh, she received a letter when the city fell from a Khmer Rouge soldier telling her how to behave in order to survive, which she did. She eventually escaped and now lives in Connecticut.
Cambodian Odyssey is immensely ambitious not only in what it attempts on stage, but also as it seeks to straddle an enormous void between two cultures in its audience. It must suitably explain concepts of kum and kama to an American viewer, while adequately telling a painfully familiar story to a Cambodian audience unfamiliar with the language or even the medium of theatre.
One of the cultural bridges that the play needed to gap was the nature and source of the evil that spawned the Cambodian holocaust. “The play is not about the Khmer Rouge being villains, nor about Haing Ngor being a hero,” Kent explains. “The rules didn’t apply, and the play calls for a reinvestigation of expectations in evaluating the experience.”
“Although we begin with Ngor as a hero and Pen Tip as a villain, it becomes clear that they are really not that different,” Lipsky says. “Survival doesn’t have to do with good or evil.”