Can theatre help a country overcome the anguish of mass murder?
That was the question explored on Sept. 20 and 21 at a symposium dedicated to the role of theatrical arts in healing Cambodia’s national psychological wounds.
“Theatre and Peace-Building in Cambodia” was sponsored by Fordham Theatre at the Lincoln Center campus.
It brought playwright and actress Chhon Sina and actor/musician Leng Sithul from Cambodia to New York City. They collaborated with Fordham acting students and Dawn Akemi Saito, artist-in-residence at Fordham, on Sina’s new play, Phka Campei.
The collaboration began with an open rehearsal of the full play and finished the next day with a staged reading of a single scene. The play tells the story of a sex worker and victim of domestic violence who lives in a slum and struggles to come to terms with the evils her father visited upon her and her mother.
Afterward, Sina and Sithul discussed the unique responsibilities they bear as artists in Cambodian society, at a panel with three Fordham professors.
Sithul, who sang selections from a contemporary Cambodian opera, said many tensions still exist in Cambodia. An estimated two million of the country’s eight million citizens were killed from 1975 to 1978 during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and many former regime supporters still live with those who suffered its abuses.
Sina compared an artist on stage to a soldier on the battlefield who needs protection from above. Music and dance are largely left alone, but theatre productions are considered a “sharp weapon” in Cambodian society.
“We do not have the artist protector. So artists feel intimidated to do their work, because they are not the people who hold the power in the ministries,” she said through interpreter Rithisal Kang.
Still, she said, they persist even with little funding and occasional flare-ups from audiences, like when she played a killer in a play called Breaking the Silence.
“How can we overcome these challenges, and how can we, as the elder teachers of theatre in Cambodia, transfer our knowledge to the younger generation?” she said. “We don’t want to bring our knowledge to the grave.”