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United Khmer Students’ play ‘Promise’ conveys new side of Khmer culture, history

United Khmer Students rehearses for its 25th annual culture night in a parking lot. The event will include a performance of its original play, “Promise.” (Courtesy of Sovann Vikram)

United Khmer Students Culture Night: "Promise"

Schoenberg Hall

May 28

7 p.m.

By Ava Allam

May 28, 2023 5:13 p.m.

United Khmer Students will dance through time in a lighthearted embrace of culture.

On Sunday, the student organization will perform the play “Promise” at its 25th annual culture night. Co-director and scriptwriter Athena Tea, a second-year chemistry student, said through the process, she was able to learn more about her culture and collaborate with others in the group to make a story to which they could relate.

“A lot does go into it, and it is very stressful and hard at times,” Tea said. “But at the end of the day, being able to have the show and share it with everyone is what makes it all worth it.”

(Courtesy of Sovann Vikram)
Members of United Khmer Students hold gold chalices. Fifth-year sociology student Roslynn Khin said the culture night’s script focuses on the Khmer community’s resilience. (Courtesy of Sovann Vikram)

As president of United Khmer Students and a “Promise” actor, Roslynn Khin said the culture night is a student-run event with a small cast and production team. When writing the story, the fifth-year sociology student said the team wanted to move away from the negativity and trauma associated with the Cambodian genocide and instead embrace the rich culture and resilience of the Khmer community. Khin added that the production team didn’t finalize the script until recently in order to make necessary minor changes.

[Related: ‘un/ending’ performances showcase ‘circularity of life’ with original choreography]

Khin said “Promise” follows a Cambodian American high school student named Sovanna “Savannah” Sok who struggles with aspects of her Cambodian identity as the child of two Cambodian refugees. After a fight with her mother, she is transported back in time to a Cambodian kingdom where she meets her potential love interest and princess of Angkor, Amaradevi “Devi,” who helps her accept and appreciate her Cambodian American identity, she added.

The performance aims to blend its dance and theatrical elements, as the traditional and modern dance routines tie into the play’s script, Khin said. The performance will include three traditional dances – Romvong, Robam Nesat and Robam Choun Por – and a modern segment comprised of two hip-hop pieces.

(Courtesy of Sovann Vikram)
Dressed in shades of blue, green and red, the student organization practices for its performance. Second-year psychobiology student Ryan Khiev said the group researched the clothing worn by royals of 12th-century Cambodia. (Courtesy of Sovann Vikram)

In order to create the looks for the various characters in the play, second-year psychobiology student and assistant director of “Promise” Ryan Khiev said the organization worked with a seamstress located in Long Beach, a traditional outpost for many people in the community who sought refuge from the genocide. The costumes were a mix of simple and elaborate designs, Tea said. The members of the organization did research to create an accurate representation of the clothing styles of 12th-century Cambodian royalty, Khiev said.

“The day we went to the seamstress, … we were all surrounding them and taking pictures,” Khiev said. “It was a good time because we haven’t seen ourselves in our traditional wear ever since we’ve gotten here, and it’s been a long time. It’s going to be a great help (as we) celebrate traditional Cambodian culture.”

[Related: Indonesian Culture Night to spotlight LGBTQ+ experience through Balinese dance]

Khin said “Promise” was the result of a combination of ideas from multiple members of the student organization. Khin added that the team wanted to challenge the notions of hegemony and heteronormativity while representing the beauty of their culture and identities.

“Essentially, this story is a queer coming of age story (about) coming to terms with, accepting and loving your identity,” Khin said. “We also wanted to highlight Khmer culture and history. … There was golden ages our country has had before the genocide occurred, … and so we wanted to … showcase other aspects of Khmer culture that I don’t think a lot of people are exposed to.”

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Ava Allam
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