From the early days of the Khmer Rouge's rule in 1975 through the suspended time of the regime's brutal "reorganization plan" carried out in the killing fields, poet U Sam Oeur traveled between six different concentration camps. Midwives murdered his twin daughters minutes after their birth. Yet this former captain in the American-backed government of General Lon Nol believes that it was only the intervention of "spirit sisters," or guardian angels, that shepherded him past seven dates with executioners. In 1978, U was en route to Phnom Chi where prisoners' bodies were converted to fertilizer when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia, deposing Pol Pot and his regime.
U was reunited with his family and assumed a low profile until 1992 when his dream of returning to the United States (where he'd received degrees from California State University and Iowa's Writer's Workshop during the 1960s) became possible. An old friend, poet Ken McCullough, had spent eight years securing U's immigration (he is now U's translator). The Cambodian relocated to Eagan, Minn., after stops in Iowa and Washington, D.C.
U's astonishing journey, and his words describing it, are the sources for Krasang Tree, running through Sunday at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The result of a two-year effort by U, composer Mark Bruckner, and director Mary Beth Easley, the work gives physical expression to the poet's acclaimed free verse. According to U, the intent is to deliver "a message to the world and mostly to the United States that the Cambodian people wish to have peace, freedom, and democracy. I thank God for the opportunity to express my experiences surviving the camps. It is a responsibility and mission I do not take lightly."
Bruckner first met U in 1992. "I accompanied his public readings and at that time he didn't speak a lot English and I spoke no Khmer," he explains. "We created common ground using found instruments." With U's encouragement, Bruckner and wife Easley decided to tell the poet's story through a musical theater format. "As a composer, I thought it was important to listen to the poetry and find what images the sound world conjured for me," says Bruckner of the initial process.
U, however, insisted his partner go beyond using only Cambodian music in the score. "Pol Pot's goal was to eliminate our traditional culture," he says. "Krasang Tree unites the sounds and gestures of traditional Cambodia with Western forms. The invocation for freedom and democracy had to be Western music to arouse my feeling, my energy," says the poet, laughing as he demonstrates: "Boom bam boom bam!"
Easley contributed dramatic shape by working with a cast of 22 singers, musicians, and performers representing Cambodia and the U.S., including master instrumentalist Loeung Bun. "The movement is a landscape. I used action words to convey what happened--bodies trampled, faces floating," Easley says, adding a caveat: "It could seem very dark, but it's life-affirming for everyone." Bruckner agrees, remarking that the work depicts "the ability to overcome the most horrific of events and move forward."
This point is illustrated for the most part successfully by the show, which opens with the cast circling in a defeated, stiff-legged shuffle. Two elaborately costumed traditional dancers (Sarin Bun and Sodanny Sophy) move among them, evoking faint memories of better times. The dark and dusty atmosphere is charged with despair.
Krasang Tree is performed entirely in Khmer, but Western audiences will have little difficulty understanding the story line. Sections narrated by "spirit singers" (including Rothana Walbot) depict U's laments for his country, his chance meeting with a cobra on the road, nights in the camps, the loss of his twin daughters, and his rage unleashed at the knotty roots of the tree. Though visually effective, this staging often fails to match the poetry's impact, relying too heavily at times on blunt physical metaphors.
At the end, U emerges to recite his poem "Lunar Enchantment" in English. "O Full Moon, bring my best wishes to Cambodia!" he howls with the resonance of a lonely coyote. And it is these urgent pleas--along with the compelling figure of a silent woman (Kim Son Thok) sitting by a well at the corner of the stage--that reverberate in the production. The bare humanity of their ordeal cannot help but overcome the limitations of the well-meaning--if also emotionally incomplete--dramatic interpretation.
Ultimately, the work does not dwell upon mourning: A dance exorcising the "supernatural devils" of Cambodia signals changes to come. U sees possibilities in the next generation, and he hopes that his contributions in the form of free verse (an art form currently restricted in the country) will play a role in a cultural uprising led by the young. "They can write free verse to express the inexpressible. There's no use in sticking to old rules," U remarked prior to opening night. "They have to make new ways."
Krasang Tree runs through September 13 at Theatre de la Jeune Lune; 333-6200.