“Red Earth, Gold Gate, Shadow Sky” depicts the lives of a younger generation of Cambodian youth struggling to find their way in American society, where gangs, crime and the prospect of prison are parts of everyday life.
The play, which ran in November in Seattle tells the story of a single family that survived the Khmer Rouge and refugee camps and found its way to the US.
Mark Jenkins, a drama professor at the University of Washington, wrote the play after spending several years researching and interviewing Cambodian-American returnees.
“Red Earth” follows the journey of one young man, Cam, through life in America, where he joins a gang and goes to prison, only to be deported on his release.
His story was inspired by real-life events and interviews. Jenkins said he wanted to tell a story that was “under reported” and that many Americans didn’t know.
“It’s important because it really addresses certain contradictions in American society at all kinds of levels as to how they treat immigrants, how they bring them into society, how they support them and what happens to them if thing don’t go very well,” he said.
Rath Clay, a Cambodian-American who lives in Seattle and has a role in the play, said the story reminded him of his own growing up. He said he hopes the play will call more attention to the issues of Cambodians and other immigrant groups in the US.
While some Americans may know the Cambodian story, he said, “they do not understand how hard our lives are, what we have been through just to come to America.”
Jenkins said Cambodian immigrant children faced difficulties integrating into the poor neighborhoods where many wound up. They were often bullied, and as a result, formed gangs, which led to crime, and even prison for some. Parents may not have understood the bureaucratic processes for citizenship. This meant under a 2001 agreement between Cambodia and the US that ex-felons would be deported—many of them to a country they did not know at all.
Rath Clay said he hopes that policy will be reconsidered.
“If we can show how hard our lives have been, maybe they will understand and they might forgive those of us who misbehave in the future,” he said. “Maybe they will change the law.”