You've heard of Theater of Cruelty, but have you seen any Theater of Suffering, a genre not unique to, but popular in, Los Angeles?
If you are interested, check out "Black Dawn," a new play by Jean Colonomos at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood. "Black Dawn" tells the story of five Cambodian women who survive horrible atrocities at the hands of the Khmer Rouge only to develop a psychosomatic or functional blindness. Once the women get to America, a kind doctor from Long Beach named Mona Devlin (Cherene Snow) tries to help them with group therapy and field trips.
"Black Dawn" takes the form of a tone poem of misery, as the women recite the ghastly things that befell them, one at a time, or sometimes in unison ("Knife knife/Slices sister's body").
Colonomos presents the atrocities of Pol Pot, whose army killed more than 1 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979, as if recitation and repetition equaled revelation. The suffering of the women is not filtered through any kind of idea or insight, unless you count Mona Devlin's un-controversial belief that "these women are prisoners of their minds and their memories" and that "sharing your memories will make them less painful." Devlin also lets us know that "I believe people are the same no matter what race, color or creed," which is certainly reassuring.
At irregular intervals and for no discernible reason, Devlin speaks in third-person narration, as in the line, " 'You're more than victim/survivors,' I said.' " Director Jon Lawrence Rivera augments the play's suffocating poetry with an arty presentation, painting this terribly rudimentary drama in awed, hushed tones. But what choice does he have?
The drama is at times broken up by a golden-suited Goddess (Corinne Chooey) in a pagoda headdress who moves with the careful grace of traditional Cambodian dance, a form nearly lost under Pol Pot's genocide of artists. At about the middle of the 80-minute evening, the two men in the cast (Dom Magwili and K. Yukio Hayashi) don masks and cheerfully tell a parable about a woman who cheats on her husband, boils her hidden lover in a pot and then gets rid of some men she cons into helping her. The ominous story breaks up the usual gloom, but its dramatic purpose is misty.
As characters, the women are fairly indistinguishable except for the details of their individual horrors, though Christina Ma has an interesting, fresh poignancy as Mrs. Wang. As Devlin, Snow wrestles soberly and quietly with an impossible part, a healer with virtually no personality or ideas. She keeps her hands to her sides and looks concerned.
Devlin is based on two doctors, Gretchen Van Boemel and Patricia Rozee, who did therapy work with Cambodian refugees in Southern California, after an unusual number of them were found to suffer from this post-trauma blindness.
One feels the playwright's heart is not in the healing process, but in the suffering itself. Some may believe that a naked and unprocessed pantomime of suffering does honor to the survivors of a horror, and it may. But "Black Dawn" achieves no more than that.
* "Black Dawn," Ivar Theatre, 1605 N. Ivar St., Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 and 8 p.m. Ends June 30. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 80 minutes.
With: Cathleen Chin, Corinne Chooey, K. Yukio Hayashi, Susan Haruye Ioka, Alice Kushida, Pat Li, Lindsay Erin Louie, Christina Ma, Dom Magwili, Cherene Snow.
A Playwrights Arena/July Inc. production. By Jean Colonomos. Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera. Sets Karen Steward. Costumes Rory Cunningham. Lights Kevin P. Lewis. Sound Daniele Rossi. Music Boro Vukadinovic. Production stage manager Jerry A. Charlson.