Social Issues and Theater Come Together at Fordham

Visual Arts and Theater Departments Sponsor Cambodian Playwrights


In New York City, artists come and go. Some stay with success, and others leave without any lasting impressions. In the case of Cambodian performers Chhon Sina and Ieng Sithul, they came to Fordham University hoping to make an impact with their art, and they did just that.

On September 21, the McMahon Lounge was half-filled by Fordham students, staff, and New York City residents alike to see excerpts from Chhon Sina’s new and controversial play, “Frangipani.” The play focuses on Cambodia’s current social issues, particularly domestic violence and sex trafficking, which have been most prominent among the lower class citizens. The play addresses these issues from the perspective of young Cambodian women, who are pressured into selling their bodies as a means of financial security. Instigated by the influence of Western culture, these women are forced into prostitution in order to afford Western trends.

These issues are addressed immediately in the play, which opens with a scene between two young girls who discuss feeling shamed and dirty by their sexual interactions. As the story progresses, the audience learns that some Cambodian women depend on these sexual exploitations to earn money, while others are targeted unwillingly. This is apparent during a scene in which a Cambodian woman tries to leave her husband after he raped both her and her daughter.

For Chhon Sina and fellow Cambodian performer Ieng Sithul, who opened and closed the play with two Cambodian songs, the ultimate goal of the performance was to share these issues openly with an active Western audience and inspire them to help bring peace among the Cambodian society. Catherine Filloux, who presented the event, has been their ideal Western activist, working with Sina and Sithul for many years both in Cambodia and the United States. Filloux co- Founded Theater Without Borders, a volunteer based organization that helps establish theater opportunities like the Fordham event for countries around the globe.

Catherine is very passionate about the theatrical expression of controversial social issues, especially since they are typically unspoken in Cambodia. “Young people have often come to me very happy and surprised to hear about our social commentary. They couldn’t believe it because it is often under wraps. So [there is] a sense of empowerment for people to be able to say what’s true. It’s a difficult issue for a country that is repressive,” she says. “It permits people to have [a] dialogue on different issues.”

Fordham’s Artist in Residence Dawn Saito helped present the event with Catherine and directed Sina’s play, which featured a few of her Fordham theater students. Like Catherine, she feels that it is extremely beneficial to present these issues in a live setting. “I feel very passionate about this subject. I think that it’s a global problem that definitely needs to be addressed.” Saito and her students read the play for the first time during a symposium held the night before the performance, and although the play was not presented in its entirety, they did a wonderful job emulating the text on such short notice.

Also present for the performance was Rithisal Kang, Cambodian Fulbright in Arts Management grantee, who translated Sina and Sithul’s responses during a post-performance Q&A session with the audience. For Kang, the performance was “an attempt to heal the problem, to raise awareness and get the attention of the people, ” but for Sithul, despite all that still needs to be fixed, the ability to freely express these issues after the Khmer Rouge regime, under which many artists were massacred from 1975 to 1979, was already an improvement deserving of recognition.

“My vision is that Cambodia will be a place for artists to enjoy the freedom of expression,” Sina said, complimenting Sithul’s statement. “I am amazed by the availability of resources in America and the freedom the artists have here.”

It was an honor to see Fordham give Sina and Sithul this opportunity to freely express their art, and hopefully this freedom will be achieved in Cambodia someday as well.