Soma rushes from class to class at Lowell High School while balancing homework and friends, just like any other 16-year-old girl.
One day, in the middle of her sister’s wedding planning, her mother must head back to Cambodia to help fight her father’s wrongful deportation from the United States.
Meanwhile, Soma posts a video that shows her performing slam poetry under the name “Khmer Kerouac,” and it blows up online. Soon her friends and future brother-in-law convince her to enter a poetry competition honoring the Beat Generation novelist and poet Jack Kerouac, who was born in Lowell a century ago.
This is the fictional plot of “Kween,” an upcoming play for the Merrimack Repertory Theatre being developed by frequent collaborator Vichet Chum. The show will have its second reading at 7:30 p.m. on May 16, funded by a $10,000 grant from the National New Play Network. Members of the public who want to view the reading can request a Zoom link at www.mrt.org/vichet.
Chum said he wrote the story hoping to reclaim the narrative about Cambodian Americans in a society dominated by white culture.
“I think for so long, other stories [about people of color] have been sort of taken over by white creators,” he said in an interview. “And I think that there is a huge shift, there’s a huge thing that happens when a [person of color] gets to be in charge of that story, of their own story. It’s always more nuanced, it’s always deeper, it’s always more self-actualized. It’s always more kaleidoscopic.”
Chum said he tied Soma’s artistic identity to Kerouac’s legacy because he was curious about the author’s impact on generations of Lowell residents. Kerouac’s 1957 novel, “On the Road” — which is based on Kerouac and his friends’ travel across the United States — is often described as the defining work of the post-World War II Beat Generation.
“For me, it was a no-brainer to give Soma the young woman a creative voice, to navigate these questions coming of age,” Chum said.
The son of Cambodian immigrants, Chum grew up in Dallas, but he was always aware of Lowell’s large Cambodian population. Upon moving to Providence, for his master’s in fine arts in acting at Brown University, Chum visited Lowell and fell in love with its multiculturalism. His relationship with the Merrimack Repertory Theatre began in 2018 when he performed the autobiographical play he wrote, “KNYUM,” and has continued since.
“Lowell is such an anomaly of a city, in that, when you walk through Lowell, you can see how different historical periods are in conversation with one another,” Chum said. “I’ve not been in a city where you’ll walk down the street [and] see the old red brick mills, and then go up close to the entry of some of these mills and then see the front door inscribed with multiple languages.”
Chum was inspired to write “Kween” after following the case of Thy Chea, who was wrongfully deported in 2018 and returned to his family in Lowell in February 2020. Chum has not met Chea or any members of his family, but the story resonated with him.
“Following that story, and knowing that it was affecting this, the city of Lowell and this community that I deeply care for, [deportation] felt like the right story to take on,” Chum said.
Courtney Sale, the theater’s artistic director, said “Kween” is an important story to tell because it changes the way viewers will see Lowell’s history.
“I’m excited about this reframing that is coming from this character, who has a very different lived experience” from Kerouac, Sale said. Ultimately, “Kween” is “really about [Soma’s] excellence as an artist. This is kind of like a launch point for her.”
Because the piece was has been developed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the creative process is different from normal. Workshop rehearsals are held via videoconference, and are shorter to avoid “Zoom fatigue.”
The play, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, has a cast of five actors.
The repertory theater is partnering with Lowell-based poet Princess Moon to hold a series of poetry residencies at Lowell High School and integrate those works with the play in the future.
In addition, Chum has partnered with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell on the project. “They’re just a great organization that really sort of works to empower to give information to the Cambodian community,” Chum said.
For Chum, it was important to focus “Kween” on Cambodian American youth to give people like him a chance to see themselves represented on stage in a complex manner.
“I just want people to see us as people who experience all kinds of things that are not necessarily connected to either a genocide or our identity,” he said. “I want that 16-year-old Cambodian kid from Lowell to be like ‘Oh my God, that’s my friend on stage!’ or ‘That’s me on stage!’”
Diana Bravo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.