Review: "KNYUM" at Merrimack Repertory Theatre is transformative storytelling at its best

Angelica Potter

This world premiere production of Vichet Chum’s compelling play, “KNYUM”, invites the audience on a journey of discovery. Written and performed by Vichet Chum, Chum portrays Guy, a hotel clerk who works the night shift while studying Khmer, the language of Cambodia.

In his quest to learn his family’s native language in preparation for their upcoming trip to Cambodia, Guy delves into the horrific history that brought his parents to America in the first place. In learning about the past and better understanding his parents, he is able to more fully appreciate where he is, how he got there, and the future he is being guided towards. He dreams of writing stories about the Cambodian people, but in order to do that he must know the language as they do.

Before the play even begins the audiences’ interest is peaked when they hear a recorded curtain speech. In and of itself it may not seem like anything out of the ordinary, but this curtain speech plays in English and then in Khmer. This artistic choice prepares the audience for hearing the language throughout the play. As Lowell Massachusetts is home to the second-largest Cambodian community in the United States, it makes sense that members of this community may attend a play written by a Cambodian American. And when they do, hearing the curtain speech in their native language I’m sure is something they don’t experience all the time. Personally, I can only recall a few instances where a curtain speech was said in any language other than English, so I found it to be a welcomed surprise.

The scenic design by Dan Conway at first seems simple with clean lines and a neutral color palette. It was easily believable as a hotel lobby; minimalistic with simple furnishings and few props. Where it surprises us is in the use of projections by designer Jon Haas. Projection screens cover the surfaces of the columns, walls, and reception desk on and above the stage. They transform throughout the play showing us the streets of New York, pictures of Guy’s family, and ultimately of the Cambodia he travels to. The use of projections takes Chum’s storytelling to the next level of transformative theatre.  

Directed by KJ Sanchez, Chum has great use of the stage. He very much seemed at home on the set and in that space. As Guy, he was engaging and he quickly grabbed the audiences’ attention. In no time, they were chuckling at his anecdotes and imitations of the people in his life. He shared an emotional story of survival from when his parents had to flee Cambodia decades earlier. He was visibly fuming with rage when discussing the war and the work camps his family was sent to. He shared his passion for creating a story with Cambodian characters that would stand the test of time and shine a light on a part of the world many know little about. Chum was naturally charismatic and amusing. Every part of his portrayal was genuine. The final moments of this play are quietly some of the most powerful as he finally holds what he’s been chasing in his dreams for so long. His last word says it all.

I’m not going to divulge any more details than that, because this is one of those plays you just need to experience for yourself. I will say that Chum’s performance of his beautifully poetic play was well deserving of the standing ovation he received from the captivated audience. ©

‘KNYUM’ plays at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located at 50 East Merrimack Street Lowell, MA, until February 4th, 2018.  Tickets range from $73-$26 with discounts available for groups, students, seniors, Lowell residents, and military service members. To purchase tickets or find more information visit or call 978-654-4678.

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Photo Credit: Vichet Chum (Guy). Photo by Meghan Moore.