One of the great things about theater is the way it can open up new slivers of the human experience.
I have a basic knowledge of the atrocities suffered in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime — the era of the “Killing Fields.” And I know that large numbers of Cambodian refugees settled in California, with Long Beach a top destination.
But Fresno City College’s production of “Year Zero,” directed by Chuck Erven, added another dimension to the Cambodian immigrant story for me by making it personal. And it does it in a thoughtful, funny way. Though the production isn’t quite as smooth and sure of itself as it could be, it’s heartfelt. (Only two performances remain: 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 23.)
Michael Golamco’s play uses two young Cambodian-Americans to frame the American immigrant experience: Ra (Thuy Duong), a UC Berkeley student; and her brother, Vuthy (Jared Flores), a 16-year-old social misfit who is finding it hard to navigate the treacherous waters of high school in Long Beach.
Ra and Vuthy’s father died years ago, but they’ve just recently lost their mother — who while unseen remains a major character. Ra has returned from college for the funeral and to look after her brother. The plan is for her to return to college and for brother to live with a family friend.
The American immigrant experience has long been fodder for novelists and playwrights. “Year Zero” is definitely a second-generation story. Its contemporary insights seem raw and realistic. To me, the play has an interesting punch because it isn’t really a story about cultural conflict between generations. For Ra and Vuthy, their parents are gone, and they’re on their own, which means they have to figure out how to weave their cultural background into a life in the only country they’ve ever known.
Some in their situation would simply try to run as far from possible from their immigrant roots. That seems to be on Ra’s agenda. For two years she’s been dating Glenn (Andrew Navarrate), a nice, sort of bland (and very non-Cambodian) doctor.
But things get sticky when she returns home to clear out the house after her mother’s funeral. She meets up with Han (the accomplished Khetphet Phagnasay), a longtime childhood friend who has stayed in the neighborhood. The sparks that fly are cultural as well as romantic. Han tells Ra about her mother’s harrowing past back in Cambodia, a subject that was always forbidden. At the same time, Ra is attracted to Han’s bad-boy, take-charge persona, along with the personal history he represents.
Through all this she has to deal with Vuthy, her unhappy brother. He’s bullied at school and can’t fit in. (He’s too Cambodian for non-Cambodians, and not Cambodian enough for Cambodians, he tells his sister.)
The acting this play isn’t always as confident and nuanced as I’ve seen at other Fresno City College productions. But everyone has some nice moments, from Duong’s sharply edged sense of insecurity to Navarrate’s preppy banter. It’s fun to see veteran professional actor Phagnasay, of KP’s Actors Gym fame, working with student actors. He brings grit, boisterousness and an earthy ache to his role.
I’m also impressed with Flores, who tosses off many of the playwright’s best lines with a wry comic timing. (Your name is spelled with two “N’s,” he tells Glenn with droll antagonism.) While his performance is still somewhat tentative at times, there are many flashes of potential here. He’s someone who could really learn to command a stage.
The weakest part of the play for me is the way the past intertwines with the present. I’m not sure if it’s the directing or writing, but the revelations about Ra’s mother never burn with much dramatic fire. Erven and his production team (Christopher R. Boltz on sets and lighting design, Jeff Barrett on sound) experiment with an overhead video screen — which along with various settings, occasionally pans across rows of skulls, a reference to the Killing Fields — to give a more introspective feel to this welding together of generations. But the connection still seemed a little flat.
Still, the final moments of “Year Zero” really got to me emotionally. Yes, the immigrant story has been told many times before. But this one, a later chapter of American history, is complicated. At one point the well-meaning Glenn, trying to make points with Vuthy, suggests that even Superman was an immigrant. Vuthy pointedly reminds him: Superman is white.