Vuthy Vichea is sixteen years old, Cambodian American. He loves hip hop and Dungeons and Dragons. He has thick-ass glasses. He is a weird kid in a place where weirdness can be fatal: Long Beach, California. Since his best friend moved and his mother died, the only person he can talk to is a human skull he keeps hidden in a cookie jar. Year Zero is a comedic drama about young Cambodian Americans — about reincarnation, reinvention, and ultimately, redemption.
Golamco's play is subtle, character-driven, and engrossing, revealing its secrets via nuance and indirection, and director David Rose meticulously charts its shifting shades of feeling.
...the acting honors must go to Huynh for his rich, endearing, and multifaceted performance as the oddball kid Vuthy, whose only confidant is a skull he keeps in a cookie jar.
Brilliantly directed by David Rose, Michael Golamco's play about a young med student and her teen-aged brother [David Huynh] facing an uncertain and divided future is a tender story filled with beautifully calibrated, incendiary performances swirling around the psychological fallout from the Cambodian killing fields.
The cast is outstanding. Huynh is so appealing as the sassy, confused Vuthy. His outbursts in hip hop song and dance are spontaneously hilarious.
...an extraordinarily perceptive look at the Cambodian American immigrant. It will give new insight and understanding of our neighbors' culture and hopefully instill more tolerance of human nature.
Layering humor with heartbreak, David Roses staging builds emotional impact with sure-footed momentum
... the play doesnt settle for easy heroes or villains each of these flawed characters tries to do the right thing as he or she sees it, but unfilled need for belonging clouds moral vision and lends the dilemmas universal resonance.
-- Philip Brandes
The spirit of a character we never see hovers over Michael Golamco's play. She is Chea Vichea, a Cambodian woman who fled to a refugee camp in Thailand after her brothers and sisters were murdered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. There she met her husband, and the two immigrated to Long Beach, Calif., where they opened a store. After his death, she continued to run the store and raise her two children: a girl, Ra (Christine Corpuz), and a younger boy, Vuthy (David Huynh).
When the play begins, Chea has died, and the children are still trying to cope with the loss. Ra is a student at Berkeley, planning to enter medical school and semi-engaged to Glenn (Eymard Cabling), a Chinese preppie med student. She means to move in with Glenn in Berkeley and farm out 16-year-old Vuthy to a friend of her mother's in Long Beach, until he can finish high school. This is a second abandonment for Vuthy, a misfit who loves hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons and hates Glenn. But the shape of their lives changes when a neighbor, Han (Tim Chiou), is released from prison, where he was sent because of his involvement with a Cambodian gang. He was once a sort of surrogate son to their mother, and now he loves Ra and assumes the role of elder brother to Vuthy. Ra is torn between safe good-boy Glenn and dangerous bad-boy Han.
Golamco's play is subtle, character-driven, and engrossing, revealing its secrets via nuance and indirection, and director David Rose meticulously charts its shifting shades of feeling. Corpuz captures the sweetness and determination of a young woman trying desperately to do right by everybody: her brother, Glenn, and Han. Chiou's Han is a tormented figure, torn between the urge to go straight and his commitment to his gang past, and Cabling lends a touch of genuine humanity to the predictable and slightly smug Glenn. But the acting honors must go to Huynh for his rich, endearing, and multifaceted performance as the oddball kid Vuthy, whose only confidant is a skull he keeps in a cookie jar.
David Potts' richly detailed set is dominated by Chea's enormous collection of tiny china figurines, which occupies every available surface.
Los Angeles Times
For assimilated children of immigrants, probing beneath the American melting pot veneer to try to reconnect with more ancient roots can prove an unsettling journey. Case in point: the recently orphaned Cambodian American and her younger brother at the center of Year Zero, Michael Golamcos fresh, moving take on conflicted cultural identity at the Colony Theatre.
Golamco writes with insight and compassion about unique challenges facing the offspring of Cambodian refugees: their lack of stature even in Asian communities and the horrific legacy of Khmer Rouge genocide.
Events unfold in Long Beach in 2003. The recent death of an immigrant shopkeeper a survivor of the "killing fields" has drawn her daughter Ra (Christine Corpuz) back from pre-med studies at Berkeley to pack up their apartment and deliver her troubled adolescent brother Vuthy (David Huynh) to the care of a family friend. Ras return to the impoverished site of her childhood compels her to understand the family tragedy from which their mother had carefully shielded them.
Caught between the dream of a better future and an unresolved past, Ras predicament is further complicated by the release from prison of her former flame, gang member Han (Tim Chiou). His return is an unwelcome development for her current boyfriend Glenn (Eymard Cabling), a clueless upscale Chinese American.
Layering humor with heartbreak, David Roses staging builds emotional impact with sure-footed momentum, though at times the conversational rhythms could use some fine-tuning. Most important, the play doesnt settle for easy heroes or villains each of these flawed characters tries to do the right thing as he or she sees it, but unfilled need for belonging clouds moral vision and lends the dilemmas universal resonance.
Anyone who thinks the Colony Theatre in Burbank only caters for the blue rinse set with safe, theatrical selections will be pleasantly surprised and refreshed by the first of this year's six-show season. Brilliantly directed by David Rose, Michael Golamco's play about a young med student and her teen-aged brother facing an uncertain and divided future is a tender story filled with beautifully calibrated, incendiary performances swirling around the psychological fallout from the Cambodian killing fields. Newly orphaned, Ra (Christine Corpuz) and Vuthy (David Huynh, giving a broad but convincing teen performance) are the offspring of a recently deceased Cambodian refugee. It turns out these two knew little of their mother's grim fight for survival. Running a store in the Long Beach's Cambodian community, she concentrated on keeping her kids away from gangs and teen pregnancy. Young, ripped and inked up gang member Han (Tim Chiou) has just been sprung from prison, but he's no thug. Han remembers the Mother's kindness over the years and wants to help his neighbors, to "give back." But Ra is proud and thinks she can cope by sending her brother to live with an "Auntie" while she completes her studies at Berkeley. Vuthy is being bullied at school and looks to Han for advice. Succumbing to Han's fervent interest, Ra starts contemplating a future minus her milquetoast Chinese boyfriend (Eymard Cabling). Short but satisfying scenes glide by with the grace and precision of a figure skating, effortlessly skirting stereotypes and predictable outcomes, while a dynamic pace is fuelled by Peter Bayne's contemporary, driving score.
LA Stage Alliance
Survivors and Immigrants in Four Midsize Theaters
Is summertime theatrical fare supposed to be light and fluffy?
Apparently not at two of our major theaters, where June is bustin out all over with dramas that examine the aftermath of the 1970s Cambodian genocide.
Year Zero at the Colony and Extraordinary Chambers at the Geffen are both worthwhile, yet theyre quite different. They make a fascinating matched set.
For the more finished and satisfying production of the two, Id pick the West Coast premiere of Year Zero, which perhaps benefits from the fact that its already been through Chicago and New York productions. Extraordinary Chambers, in its first full production, still needs a little tweaking before it reaches the current state of Year Zero.
It also helps that David Roses staging of Year Zero is set in Long Beach and written by the Westwood-based Michael Golamco. It feels closer to home and therefore somewhat more immediate than Extraordinary Chambers, which is set completely in distant Cambodia yet is written by an American, David Wiener.
David Huynh, Christine Corpuz and Tim Chiou in YEAR ZERO.
As it happens, Long Beach has a large community of Cambodian Americans whose creators fled the harrowing conditions in their native land in the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime. Golamco isnt one of them he was born in the Philippines but he obviously has given a lot of thought to the odysseys of recent Asian immigrants into American culture.
His story, set in 2003, focuses on young siblings, 16-year-old Vuthy (David Huynh, in a convincing display of teenage angst) and his 22-year-old sister Ra (Christine Corpuz). Following the death of their émigré shopkeeper mother, Ra has returned to Long Beach from her current home in Berkeley, where she has been studying for her med school entrance exam.
She has decided that her brother should now move in with one of their mothers Long Beach friends in order to complete high school. But Vuthy who wants to be a graphic novelist would prefer to join his sister and her live-in boyfriend, the Chinese American Glenn (Eymard Cabling), in Berkeley, even though Vuthy thinks Glenn is way too preppy.
Then there is the boy next door Han (Tim Chiou). Hes about Ras age, and hes a big, strapping man/boy affectionately referred to as the worlds largest Cambodian by the relatively puny and bespectacled Vuthy. On the one hand, Han is trouble a member of the Cambodian American gang TRG who was recently released from prison. On the other hand, Han has a soft spot for both Ra and Vuthy. He was Ras secret boyfriend in high school, and hes the only grown-up man with whom Vuthy can vent. Han spoke to their late mother about her experiences in Cambodia more than her children ever did. Chiou created this role at Chicagos Victory Gardens and makes Han an indelible figure.
Another confidant for Vuthy is a skull that he apparently smuggled out of Cambodia after he went there with a group from the local temple. Now that his mother is gone, he uses the skull as a way to look out for his mother in the afterlife.
Golamco takes these ingredients and weaves them into a story that acknowledges the harsh dislocation of these immigrants but also respects their American opportunities. The title Year Zero, which was Pol Pots designation of how history was beginning anew with his rule, here also refers to how history begins anew for immigrants within the American cultural stew. The play is a moving examination of that perspective within the microcosm of these four young people.
I wonder if any Cambodian Americans from Long Beach will see Year Zero. Trent Steelman, executive director of the Colony, told me that an attempt was made to contact possible theatergoers through a Cambodian community center in Long Beach but that the Colonys inability to provide buses for the drive between Long Beach and Burbank more or less ruled out any possibility that something would happen.
Too bad the Colony and International City Theatre in Long Beach couldnt have arranged a co-production of Year Zero or a swap. Theyre theaters of about the same size and professional standards. If Year Zero could have transferred to Long Beach after its Burbank run, perhaps ICTs current production of the late John Henry Redwoods The Old Settler which also opened last weekend could eventually have transferred to the Colony.
Karen Malina White and Veralyn Jones in THE OLD SETTLER
The Old Settler (also seen at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1998) is also about two siblings who have an immigrant or at least a migrant history. But these are middle-aged women who migrated from the South to the North and live in Harlem in 1943 when racism was still unapologetically out in the open, at least in the South. The two plays are on the same bittersweet emotional spectrum, although The Old Settler is slightly more bitter, perhaps because its characters are considerably older. But its comedy is a little sharper as well. caryn desais staging, with Veralyn Jones and Karen Malina White as the two sisters who tangle over a much younger man (Ryan Vincent Anderson), captures the plays Chekhovian melancholy.
Even if its too late to arrange this swap of the two productions, desai should get up to the Colony pronto to see Year Zero, if she hasnt already done so. This is a play that Cambodian Americans in Long Beach should not miss simply because of transportation issues, and ICT could produce it better than any other company in Long Beach. I imagine that the rest of ICTs audience would be touched by it as well.
Meanwhile, over in Westwood, the Geffen has unveiled Extraordinary Chambers, in which Carter, an American telecom executive (Mather Zickel) and his wife Mara (Marin Hinkle) go to Cambodia so that Carter can transact a business deal involving call centers and so that they can get away from some of the heartbreak that theyve experienced back home. By plays end, theyve transacted an entirely different kind of deal that directly reflects back on their personal crisis, thanks to the interference of their Cambodian facilitator (Francois Chau) and his poisonously embittered wife (Kimiko Gelman). Theyve also had to face the fact that some of the survivors of Cambodian genocide may have been culpable for some of the damage and to wonder if they might have been capable of similar behavior.
Kimiko Gelman, Francois Chau in EXTRAORDINARY CHAMBERS
Wiener has devised a complicated plot, and it gets more complicated as it approaches the ending, with a final scene that contains an excess of exposition, without leaving enough time to digest it or even to make sure we understand it. Without revealing the particulars, Ill just say that the climactic details make the ages set by Wiener in his script and the consequent casting of Pam MacKinnons staging somewhat problematic a couple of the characters appear too young to have done what they supposedly did in the 70s.
Nonetheless, the production effectively maintains an air of tantalizing mystery through most of its length, with sterling performances throughout. Although much of the focus is on the two Americans, which initially seems like a facile way to engage American theatergoers, it isnt simply an empty gesture Wiener briefly glances at Americas pre-Khmer Rouge role and Western-produced landmines that litter the Cambodian landscape. Also, a third Cambodian character, the facilitators servant Sopoan (Greg Watanabe) rises from apparent sidekick to what is arguably the most important role by plays end, after a series of monologues that take us closer to the actual genocidal experience than any other part of the play or than any of the imagery in Year Zero, for that matter.
Finally, as Ive been making the rounds of some of our important midsize theaters in this column, I probably shouldnt overlook the current Krunk Fu Battle Battle at East West Players. This is basically a b-boy dance spectacle, attached to a formulaic plot about a kid who migrates from Connecticut to the same Chinese American neighborhood in Brooklyn when his now-single mother grew up. There, he must face down the local b-boy bullies in order to establish his street cred. The musical primarily caters to Asian American teenagers who have never set foot in a theater, but some of these same teenagers would probably become much more involved in the struggles faced by 16-year-old Vuthy in Year Zero, if they knew about it.
Rare indeed is the immigrant play with magnetic universal appeal. Year Zero is such a play. In Micahel Golamco's view of Cambodian Americans searching for identity in America we see the struggle not only through the eyes of a Cambodian American teenager Vuthy (David Huynh), but also via the older generation. Although his mother is deceased, she becomes the fifth character in the play. From all that is said about this strong woman, we come to know just how much she endured with ferocity, tenacity and grace. Now at the Colony this West Coast premiere Year Zero is evocative and thought provoking in its humor packed exposition with electric direction and a remarkable cast.
Vuthy's appeal stems from his similarity to most teenagers irregardless of race. He is motherless, mostly independent due to his sister's absence (Christine Corpuz), and totally vulnerable to the abuse he gets from Simoan students and the world at large. Could be any normal teen in the same situation! Vuthy desperately needs a father figure, and Han (Tim Chiou), the young man next door, serves as big brother to him when he is released from prison. Han's negative habits, however, threaten Vuthy's upbringing-at least by sister Ra's appraisal. Han has the hots for Ra, who is studying medecine at Berkely and who already has a Chinese boyfriend Glenn (Eymard Cabling) who, despite his constant efforts to befriend the boy, is misunderstood and looked down upon by Vuthy. Ra, Vuthy and Han suffer from the same problem: lack of self-worth. Ra is focused on a career but never really knew her mother and ancestors, and that has left a huge hole in her life. Han knew the mother well, worked in her tiny neighborhood restaurant and helps Ra to better understand her, but he himself is a gang member and needs to break away if he wants to have a life. Change is in the wind for all four - even for the apparently secure Glenn whose relationship with Ra is threatened by her attraction to Han. How the characters affect one another through the process of change is at the heart of the play and Golamco's keen perceptions are highly absorbing.
The cast is outstanding. Huynh is so appealing as the sassy, confused Vuthy. His outbursts in hip hop song and dance are spontaneously hilarious. Corpuz is riveting as Ra, and Chiou makes Han a true enigma. A tower of power on the outside, his loyalties become severely challenged. Obsessed with a caring way for both Ra and Vuthy, he keeps his own hurt subdued, private. An intense performance! Cabling is also wonderful as Glenn, the struggling outsider who really loves Ra.
Golamco's claim that Superman is the definitive story of the plight of the immigrant in America is a brilliant analogy and propels Vuthy in his tenacious quest for self-esteem. Rose makes great strides as director keeping the pacing quick and allowing each character to find his shining moment. The set by David Potts is beautifully detailed with the mother's multitude of tiny figurines adorning wall shelves. The front wall also rises to show an elevated platform upon which exterior scenes are played out, as in a local whore house, a temple exterior and a car interior. It's cinematic, placing us as true observers within the confines of this Long Beach community, kind of like in South Central LA, and works beautifully on the tightly compact stage.
Don't miss Year Zero, an extraordinarily perceptive look at the Cambodian American immigrant. It will give new insight and understanding of our neighbors' culture and hopefully instill more tolerance of human nature.