In Cambodia, Year Zero occurred in 1975 when Pol Pot took power and “restarted” an entire society through forced labor and mass killings. The notion that traumatic events can bring about a complete reordering of reality is at the heart of Year Zero by Michael Golamco, making its Northwest premiere at Seattle’s SIS Productions.
Twenty-first century Long Beach, Calif., seems light years away from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), which brought about the deaths of an estimated 2 million people through executions, starvation, overwork, and disease. For three children of the Killing Fields, there is no escaping the ghosts of those who died or of those who fled to America in an attempt to create their own Year Zero.
In the aftermath of his mother’s death, nerdy high schooler Vuthy (Moses Yim) makes an offering of rap lyrics to a novelty skull that he bought off eBay and keeps in a cookie jar. Bullied by Samoan kids at his school and rejected by his fellow Cambodians, he is plagued by the idea that he’s “too Cambodian for the black and Latin kids, and not Cambodian enough for the Cambodian kids.” Orphaned in the land of opportunity, Vuthy has one week to move out of his home. His hyper-efficient college student sister, Ra (Elizabeth Daruthayan), is unsympathetic, planning to foist him off on a friend of the family rather than allow him to move into the Berkley apartment she shares with her upwardly mobile boyfriend, Glenn (Christian T. Ver).
Like Vuthy, Ra is not Cambodian enough. Though her brother took a brief trip to the homeland, where he saw racks upon racks of skulls memorializing the Killing Fields, Ra doesn’t even know the names of her aunts, uncle, or grandparents who died in these mass execution and burial sites. The one man who does know is Ra’s ex-boyfriend, who has just been released from prison. A member of TRG (the Tiny Rascal Gang, a real street gang formed in the mid-1980s by Cambodian refugees in Long Beach and now the largest Asian-American gang in the U.S.), muscle-bound Han (Johnny Patchamatla) astutely refers to himself as “the world’s largest Cambodian.” Han is everything that Ra is not: deeply embedded in the immigrant community, willing to break the rules even if it means deportation, scornful of the American dream, and personally scarred by childhood memories of the Killing Fields.
Though Vuthy is framed as the protagonist in this touching family drama, Year Zero is really Ra’s story. She is what happens when refugee parents actively attempt to bury the past. She got good grades in high school by “laying low” to avoid being drawn into the troubled lives of her fellow Cambodians. She escaped the old neighborhood as soon as she could. She even stayed away from her dying mother until the funeral, an awkward service held at the local temple that she banned her Asian but not Cambodian boyfriend from attending because she felt out of place herself. “When I’m there, I feel like I’m a tourist,” she confesses.
As Ra struggles to pack up her mother’s seemingly meaningless collection of tacky figurines (a self-conscious and unnecessary allusion to The Glass Menagerie), Han adroitly draws Vuthy into his illicit world. Ra’s instinct is to flee from pain, while Han teaches Vuthy to fight back. Though Han could be seen as the villain of the play, he is in reality the work’s most legitimate victim. If he’s a criminal, a gang banger, and a would-be murderer, he’s no worse than any of his fellow Killing Field refugees — even Vuthy and Ra’s mother. Good people died first under the Khmer Rouge, he says. Their mother may have dug the graves of her parents and her siblings, she may have walked hundreds of miles barefoot until she reached asylum in Thailand, but Han knows that, like him, she was not good.
It’s heavy stuff, and at times Year Zero slips into pure melodrama. There’s no lack of sincerity from the cast, none of whom are of Cambodian descent, nor from director Miko Premo, who keeps the action from stalling in a play with an excess of scene changes. There’s a choppiness to Golamco’s script that prevents the audience from delving deeply into the unspoken trauma in the characters’ backgrounds. Indeed, the most interesting character of all is dead. Vuthy and Ra’s mother taught herself English and French, even after her textbooks were taken away. She steered her myopic brother clear of a Khmer Rouge soldier with an ingenious trick. She didn’t manage to rescue of any of her family members, but she smuggled a single tiny figurine all the way from Cambodia to America. These glimpses into her narrative provided by Han are tantalizing but unsatisfying. This is a character begging for a presence on stage, but she remains a ghost that is discussed, then discarded.
The deliberate killing of the past was the lynchpin of the Khmer Rouge regime. For the damaged young people in Year Zero, killing the present is equally crucial. “If you’re waiting for your next life to come, you don’t have to care about this one,” Vuthy says. Ultimately, the play does little more than crack the door to Cambodia’s history to give the audience a brief peep at a dark and horrifying world, before firmly slamming it shut.
If you go: Year Zero runs Fridays and Saturdays (two performances on Saturdays) through Oct. 22 at Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle. For details and tickets, call 206-323-9443 or visit www.sis-productions.org.