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Young Performers Bring Up Cambodia's Living Past

A group of 19 young Cambodian performers prepare to perform at the International School of Phnom Penh. (Sayana Ser/VOA)
A group of 19 young Cambodian performers prepare to perform at the International School of Phnom Penh. (Sayana Ser/VOA)

A new theater production at the International School of Phnom Penh aims to help younger Cambodians understand the country's violent past by combining imaginative performance with documented memories of those who survived the Khmer Rouge regime.

Theater teachers and directors from around the world came together to work with 19 Cambodian performers between the ages of 17 and 24 on “See You Yesterday.” The show was produced by Global Arts Corps in partnership with Phare Ponleu Selpak, the renowned performing arts nongovernmental organization.

The young troupe, made up of only the second or third generation of Cambodians to be born since the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in January 1979, showed courage in tackling the production, said Michael Lessac, artistic director of Global Arts Corps.

"They used their creative skills to make sense of the silence handed down to them from the violent past of their forebearers," he said through a translator.

"The play is a search for what it feels like to relive a past after growing up in the aftermath of violence," he added, explaining that the performances became exercises in exploration of cultural identity for performers and audience members alike. "It opened up a dialogue between youth and their elders, and new stories found their way into the rehearsals."

Confronting old horrors

Playing out events from more than 35 years ago, the performers confront old horrors in the present day.

Phat Sreyleak, 17, played a pregnant woman who had to struggle to deliver her baby alone during work in a rice field. She went through labor without a midwife, medicine or help, only to see the baby taken away from her.

When asked how she felt about the role, the actress said it was only through learning the steps that she could understand how people struggled during that time. It made her realize the pain her mother felt when she gave birth to her, she added through tears.

Chhang Youk, executive director of Documentation Center of Cambodia, praised the performance.

"The Earth itself cried when Sreyleak portrayed the pain of women suffering under the Khmer Rouge," he said.

The show will also be performed in Rwanda and other countries affected by atrocities.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.