BY BETTINA R. PALILEO
It is not very often that a group of 11- to 17-year-olds spend their summer performing in a play about the horrors that took place in Cambodia’s Killing Fields, where an estimated one to three million died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge communist regime.
But, this year, Rainier Valley Youth Theatre (RVYT) SummerStage takes on the subject and presents the South Seattle community with a brand new play called, “Angkor/America.”
“Angkor/America” weaves together interviews, dance and a fairy tale about a king whose ambitions lead to the enslavement of his people.
The play focuses on what life was like in Cambodia before and during the time Khmer Rouge took power, and what it’s like to be a teenager in the United States today.
The concept for “Angkor/America” began a year ago when RVYT Artistic Director Maria Glanz discovered that theatre artist Todd Jefferson Moore wanted to do a piece about his neighbors, a group of Laotian farmers. After some initial discussions, they decided to create a piece about the true stories of local Cambodian and Laotian immigrants combined with traditional music and dance.
“We really look for stories that are particularly meaningful to people who live here and that haven’t been told before,” says Glanz.
Moore began interviewing members of South Seattle’s Laotian and Cambodian communities, in particular working with the Rainier Vista Khmer Youth Group. The interviews would then be turned into documentary theatre, also called testimonial theatre, which uses real first-person accounts.
Glanz continued with the project, doing what SummerStage always does, which is work with a teenage cast and give them theatre training through rehearsal and performance training.
However, the twist on this year’s program is that the youth took a central role in the making of the new play and shaped it into what it is today. The youth have seen the play progress from story to script, which was not available until a few weeks before the play’s premiere.
“We’ve kind of molded the form to fit our kids, to fit the story we want to tell,” says Glanz.
On the first day of rehearsal, Glanz saw how young the kids were and realized that dealing with the serious topic of the Killing Fields during the summer required some elements of fun.
Moore came across a Southeastern tale that was a possible metaphor for Pol Pot and what happened to the Killing Fields. He says, “It was a nice contrast to the kind of bleak first-person testimonials.”
Interwoven with the lyrical fairy tale are Moore’s interviews, along with stories he gathered from other sources.
Glanz believes that the fairy tale element in “Angkor/America” helps tell the stories of the documentary monologues in a way that people of all ages can access.
Now, with the production of the play in full swing, Chloe Ameh, assistant stage manager, says the youth have seen their work pay off.
Throughout the summer, from 6 to 9:30 p.m., the youth worked hard on choreography, memorizing lines and stage blocking.
The kids admit that it was hard learning the traditional dance and working with a script that has gone through several revisions. This year’s smaller cast also meant more lines to memorize for each of them.
Glanz says that performing gives youth a sense of confidence. SummerStage is also about every single one of the youth working with each other and pulling their own weight. She says, if they don’t, “we don’t have a play.”
“You can’t have a successful play or a successful theatre production if people are not working together,” she says.
Molly Tollefson, one of the cast members, says, “What’s cool about this [program] is that the kids who are here actually want to come here – you really have to commit to this stuff.”
“There is a sense of confidence that can come from performing,” says Glanz.
SummerStage’s youth cast members have poured energy into a play they helped create. Showing intricate dance, authentic costumes, intense monologues and a vibrant energy that only young people can truly capture, “Angkor/America” tells a tale that resonates within its South Seattle community and beyond.
Angkor/America plays at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center on Aug. 2 – 5 at 8 p.m. Call (206) 725-7169 for information. .