November 1, 2011

Stories of Cambodian returnees form basis of play by drama school prof

A friends insistence that he take a trip to an unlikely destination led Mark Jenkins to write a play. The friend was Don Fels, an artist who works all around the world doing collaborations with other artists. The destination was Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Jenkins met the subjects of his play.

On Nov. 9 and Nov. 11-13, a portion of the play, Red Earth, Gold Gate, Shadow Sky, will be presented in the Cabaret Theatre of Hutchinson Hall.

The play is about returnees — Cambodian youth who grew up in the United States but were deported back to Cambodia after serving time in American prisons.

Jose Abaoag is the lead character, Cam, and Sreymom Serey plays his mother Sovanara in Mark Jenkins' play about Cambodian returnees.

Stuart Isett

Jose Abaoag is the lead character, Cam, and Sreymom Serey plays his mother Sovanara in Mark Jenkins

“I knew nothing about the situation, but Don convinced me to meet him in Phnom Penh in 2008 over spring break,” said Jenkins, who is a professor in the School of Drama. “He had set up interviews with people who had been kids in the Pol Pot era, then had managed to escape from Cambodia to refugee camps in Thailand where they faced all kinds of ordeals, eventually making it to the U.S.

“They were dumped into the inner cities, so many of the kids grew up in poverty and in an environment of gangs. They were often bullied because theyre small people and they were the new kids on the block. So a lot of them joined gangs, got into lives of crime, got busted, went to prison. Then, after being released from prison, immigration would come and get them.”

Many were incarcerated again, some for years before being deported back to a land that also regards them as aliens, Jenkins said. He said deportation was possible because the Cambodian immigrants had never become U.S. citizens, and non-citizens who have committed felonies or who have served more than 180 days are subject to deportation.

“As opposed to most other immigrant communities, the vast majority of the Cambodians were peasants, so many of them were illiterate even in their own language,” Jenkins said. “A lot of the Cambodian people Ive talked to who were kids, now adults, said they had no clue about what becoming a citizen even meant. They were just sort of surviving.”

Fels had told Jenkins that the stories of these returnees would make a great play. When he got to Phnom Penh and talked to them, Jenkins agreed.

“Their stories are full of drama,” he said. After videotaping interviews with eight returnees in Cambodia, he went on to interview several people here who were facing deportation. He completed the first draft of a script in the summer of 2010.

The production at Hutchinson, which will be repeated Nov. 18-19 at High Point Community Center, will be of only the first act of the play. Actors will carry scripts, and the set will be minimal.

Jose Abaoag talks to the play's director, Victor Pappas.

Jenkins calls the plot a “dark vision of the heros journey,” as his main character faces one challenge after another. Hes brought in some mythological characters based on the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Indian Ramayana epic.

“I think the reason Im really attached to the story is because there are a few — very few — of these returnees who have actually redeemed themselves and are doing some really valuable work, either in Cambodia or here in the U.S.,” Jenkins said.

One such man was a break dancer as well as a gang banger, Jenkins said, and when he returned to Cambodia he noticed there were a lot of street kids who didnt have anywhere to go. So he decided to found an organization called “Tiny Toons” for homeless kids. He teaches them break dancing. The organization also provides reading programs, health education and an arts curriculum.

Will his hero similarly triumph over adversity? Jenkins wont say yes.

“I dont want to declare it; I like ambiguity. But hes going to have the choice to succeed.”

Jenkins is proud of the fact that he, Fels and the plays director Victor Pappas managed to develop a relationship with the Cambodian community in Seattle. Thats why there will be performances at High Point, where many of the Cambodians live.

“People in the community were wary of us,” Jenkins said. “But we gained their trust, and Cambodian Americans make up most of the cast.”

Part of the reason for doing the performance now is that the Henry Art Gallery is hosting an exhibit by Cambodian sculptor Sopheap Pich Nov. 10-April 4. Fels and Jenkins met Pich in Cambodia and were fascinated with his constructions made out of bamboo and rattan. The sculptor has been consulting on scenic elements for the play, and will talk about his own work at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Henry. The play will also include a Cambodian dance choreographed by Moly Sam, who was a court dancer before Pol Pot.

The Undergraduate Theatre Society has been contributing labor as well as its performance space for the play, Jenkins said. In conjunction with the performance and Pichs exhibit, the UWs Southeast Asia Center and the Simpson Center for the Humanities are sponsoring a public lecture, Memory, Identity, Homeland, and the Refugee Experience in the Contemporary Arts of Cambodia and Its Diaspora, and dialogue with Southeast Asian art historian Boreth Ly at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, in the Henry Art Gallery Auditorium. Ly is an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Campus performances of Red Earth, Gold Gate, Shadow Sky are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 11 and 12 and at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 13. The Highpoint performances are at 7 p.m. Suggested donation for all performances is $5.