Steppenwolf’s ‘Bald Sisters’ recalls Cambodian genocide with resilience, humor
In his world premiere play, writer Vichet Chum honors family members who survived the Pol Pot regime.
By the time Vichet Chum was born, the Cambodian genocide his parents fled in the 1970s had killed more than a quarter of their homeland’s population. The generational aftermath faced by survivors of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s deadly regime looms large in Chum’s “Bald Sisters,” which makes its world premiere in December at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
The Texas-born, New York-based, 36-year-old Cambodian-American playwright’s family drama has roots in Chum’s own family history, and that of the country many of his relatives were forced to leave.
“My entire family is survivors of the Cambodian genocide,” Chum said. “They were fragmented in labor camps. Reunited in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines.”
When: Dec. 1 - Jan. 21
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 - $84
Chum’s parents came to the United States in the early 1980s, refugees from the Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot’s brutal attempt to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. During that attempt, roughly between 1975 and 1979, somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Intellectuals — students, professors and artists — were among the first targeted for rural labor camps, or worse. Chum’s parents had been students.
“That our family was reunited at all, that’s a miraculous thing to me. I’ve always had the idea of writing a play about the Cambodian women in life. My mother. My aunt. My cousins.”
“Bald Sisters” centers on two first-generation Cambodian-American sisters and their mother, a survivor of the genocide. Ma (Wai Ching Ho) dies early on, but not before establishing herself as a matriarchal powerhouse of formidable, mordant wit — something she highlights throughout as the time frame sometimes shifts to flashback.
It falls to Ma’s daughters Him (Jennifer Lim) and Sophea (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) to figure out what to do with the body. Him, who Chum describes as “aggressively assimilated,” favors the Western traditions of funeral plots and caskets. Sophea wants a cremation. Both sisters are bald, but for profoundly different reasons.
Their discussion about what to do with Ma is superheated by history, which Ma herself describes in specific, harrowing and sometimes incongruously funny detail.
“That’s something that always struck me about the women in my family. They have fierce, fierce senses of humor — but if you were to crack open their stories you would go. ‘How can this person in front of me still be alive?’ ” Chum said.
“The tragedy is fundamental. But I’m interested in getting us beyond the tragedy or just surviving. I want to show that we can thrive and possess a sense of humor. I wanted to take the baton and move the narrative about Cambodia forward.
“The sisters are essentially derived from my cousins, including one that was born in a refugee camp. I think about legacy a lot, what we inherit and what we do with it, especially when it’s a legacy like this: tragedy and survival.”
In “Bald Sisters,” the titular siblings cope in part through religion: Him is a devout Southern Baptist married to a pastor (played by Coburn Goss), Sophea as a Theravada Buddhist.
“I went to the Southern Baptist Church and practiced Theravada Buddhism growing up,” Chum said. “I’ve always been interested in how those worlds crash into each other, and sometimes mirror each other. When it comes right down to it, they’re both about trying to figure out how to love one another.”
Chum grew up in Carrollton, Texas. As a kid, he and his brother commandeered the family camcorder in order to create DIY public service announcements. “We’d try to replicate whatever we were consuming on TV. I remember we made up one for a charter hospital. We were always kind of concocting stories for ourselves,” Chum said.
As an undergrad at Indiana’s University of Evansville, Chum studied performance, but by the time he landed in grad school at Brown Trinity, writing had taken the lead in his ambitions. Landing at Steppenwolf for “Bald Sisters” is at once a dream and a responsibility, he said.
“They’ve been incredibly supportive,” he said of the theater. “At the same time, when we were casting I was hyper-aware of the fact that there are no Asian-American actors in Steppenwolf’s ensemble — not that there aren’t any in the ensemble, but there’s no actors. It shows you how disproportionate these opportunities are. And it’s challenging. I am one in a very small number of Cambodian American theater artists getting this kind of platform. It’s a milestone and responsibility.”