In one of history’s most insidious social experiments, after the April 1975 overthrow of the Cambodian government, the Khmer Rouge began trying to erase that ancient civilization’s culture and traditions. During a single day, these “rice paddy nationalists” emptied the capital city of Phnom Penh. Many died during the forced march of two million residents into the countryside, where they were enslaved in agricultural labor camps, working night and day without adequate food. People with an apparent education -- even anyone who wore eyeglasses -- were executed. The insane goal was to return the populace to a peasant economy with no class divisions, no monetary system, no schools, no hospitals and, for a devout Buddhist society, no religion. Torture was commonplace. Surgical experiments were conducted without anesthesia. The forces of leader Pol Pot, who had been a university student in France, even murdered babies. He predicted that his ultra-Marxist minions would “do away with all vestiges of the past” and described the new era, in which an estimated 1.7 million citizens were killed, as Year Zero.
Year Zero, a play by Michael Golamco, enjoyed a one-month New York run ending in mid-June at Second Stage Theatre Uptown, an intimate off-Broadway venue that, ironically, is situated right on Broadway, at 76th Street. His gripping tale addresses the Khmer Rouge holocaust through the limited perspectives of three young Cambodian-Americans, a second generation born to immigrants who fled the infamous Killing Fields for the relative safety of Long Beach, California. Except that it’s not particularly safe for 16-year-old Vuthy Vichea (Mason Lee), a nerdy brainiac who is routinely taunted and beaten up by bullies at his public high school. He and his older sister, Ra (Maureen Sebastian), have recently lost their mother, who told them little about her experiences as a refugee. Now, their modest house is for sale and Ra, a premed student, plans to leave Vuthy with an elderly acquaintance because the Berkeley apartment she shares with her Chinese-American boyfriend, Glenn (Peter Kim), is too small to accommodate another person. Things get even more complicated when Han (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a bad boy from next door who was Ra’s lover years earlier, is released from prison.
A fan of hip hop, comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, the lonely and confused Vuthy is easily influenced by Han, who has a violent score to settle on behalf of his street gang. He’s a thug with heart, though, and someone in whom the late Mrs. Vichea confided the stories she did not tell her children. An entire legacy has been lost; The youngsters don’t know anything about family members who remained in Cambodia. Vuthy once visited the ancestral homeland on a heritage trip, and clandestinely stuffed an anonymous skull into his backpack from museum shelves with thousands of them, displayed as a reminder to never forget. In California, this grim artifact is used as sort of oracle that he hides in a cookie jar on top of the refrigerator; Vuthy periodically asks it for a blessing -- in one instance, to guide his mother’s soul to a place of eternal rest.
Year Zero mixes topical issues, personal tragedy, romantic inclinations and mystical possibilities into an incisive whole that helps define a nation of immigrants. American Indians are the only group with a genuine claim on what’s now called the United States, yet many descendants of European settlers seem to think newcomers from other parts of the world don’t belong. (Are you listening, Arizona?) The play, however, depicts a vicious pecking order in the assimilation process. While Samoan teenage classmates torment Vuthy, he really doesn’t fit in anywhere. His lament: “I’m too Cambodian for the black and Latino kids, and I’m not Cambodian enough for the Cambodian kids.” At one point, Ra asks: “Where are we in the Asian hierarchy? Below Vietnamese, above -- I don’t know -- orangutans?”
The uniformly talented cast itself is a lovely hodgepodge of ethnicities and the playwright, Michael Golamco, boasts a Filipino-Chinese lineage. He has written a smart, sensitive and searing account of people caught in between layers of the American Dream. What he has dubbed a comedic drama surely could be “opened up,” as Hollywood likes to say, for the big screen. Mason Lee’s uncanny portrayal of adolescent Vuthy belies the fact that the actor is a student at New York University, but he’s also the son of filmmaker Ang Lee. And the self-assured Year Zero director, Will Frears, is the offspring of Stephen Frears, whose take on the planet-wide migrant mosaic ranges from 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette to Dirty Pretty Things in 2002.
Ra’s fiance, Glenn, tells Vuthy that Superman essentially was an illegal alien who emigrated from the kaput Krypton. This observation is intended to help him feel better about being an outcast, but the little wiseguy notes that the saga might be altogether different had infant Kal-El been Asian. Even if the kindly Kents of Kansas were willing to adopt a nonwhite child back in the less enlightened 1930s, would the nascent Man of Steel grow up as a misfit in his small Midwestern town and later be marginalized by the Earthlings of Metropolis? That question can be decided by comics aficionados. It’s at least certain that Superman could never return to his birthplace. Although the Vietnamese army liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge in 1979, those 1.7 million skulls are a potent symbol of why the Vuthy Vicheas of this world keep hoping for a better life in the proverbial land of the free and home of the brave.
-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.