KNYUM at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Brianna Moran on January 16th, 2018

Vichet Chum’s Funny, Heart-Wrenching One-Man Show Delights at Lowell Performance.

This season, Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre brings us the brilliant and innovative stage memoir “KNYUM,” a one-man show starring New York City-based writer and performer Vichet Chum, currently playing through February 4.

In the play, we meet Guy, played by Chum, whose parents survived the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. As he prepares to travel to his homeland of Cambodia for the first time, Guy desperately tries to learn Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, while working the graveyard shift at a New York hotel. Guy is consumed by language and strange letters and thoughts of home, even as he politely wishes genuine “good evenings” to the colorful hotel patrons who interrupt his manic reveries. “Knyum” means “I” in Khmer — a simple word Guy endlessly struggles to pronounce while learning the language.

We watch Guy float in and out of trippy dream sequences — poetic animations of his innermost fears, realized in a whir of lighting and sound. In one sequence, he imagines speaking to his emotionally reticent father, asking him about what the genocide was really like and if he ever thought he would make it out of Cambodia to be someday sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner in Texas. Guy begs him, “When you close your eyes, what do you see? Do you see me? Do I look like you at all?” The effect is heart-wrenching.

Photos by Meghan Moore, courtesy Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

Guy carries the pressure of his parents’ urge for him to see a better life than they faced themselves, though he struggles to understand how he could possibly be better than two people who survived a genocide and came to America with nothing but the clothes on their back. The play is based on Chum’s own life, and his performance crackles with raw honesty. The audience participates in this astonishing journey of self-discovery, which is at times humorous, at other times dark and unforgiving in its depiction of the inner and outer conflicts of a second-generation immigrant. Chum performs with the weight from generations of anguish, yet with an honest smile and open heart. He is instantaneously likeable, charming and wildly entertaining.

“KNYUM” depicts its conflicts with liveliness and grace, mirroring the Khmer language Guy struggles to adopt. Performing the play in Lowell is particularly appropriate, as many in the audience have faced experiences that echo the playwright’s attempt to come to terms with his fraught familial and historical past while looking toward an uncertain but optimistic future.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit MRT.org/show/knyum.

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