Neary has just passed her grade-12 exams with a “C”, enough to escape her rural hometown and pursue a university education in Phnom Penh – just like her older brother, though her grandmother wants her to marry the rich rice-mill owner nearly twice her age.
This is the set-up for I Am a Daughter, a play that premiered last Friday at Meta House and is set to tour the Kingdom’s secondary schools starting next year. Written by former television news presenter-turned-writer Kim Dyna, 26, the play depicts realistic scenarios for women, in which they find a perhaps idealistic solution. It was funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and produced through the Turtle Club, a project exploring social issues through theatre.
“The topic is girl empowerment. I want to encourage women not to drop their studies,” she says. In part Dyna says the play draws from her own experience. “My family wanted me to marry the rich man,” she says, adding that Neary’s dilemma was also pieced together from interviews she conducted with female Cambodian high school students.
The crux of the drama is captured by the debate between Neary and her grandmother. Neary points to the unhappy family-arranged marriages of her own mother and her friend Soriya – who happened to have married the brother of the rice mill owner at the age of 16.
“It was to show how a girl can have a voice in the family,” Dyna explains.
Adding a bit of comic relief to the performance, Neary’s grandmother and friend Soriya are convincingly interpreted by male performer Ney Sovannarith, while Soriya’s abusive husband is played by female performer Nim Reaksmey, who also plays the protagonist Neary.
The 45-minute play, constructed over 10 scenes, ultimately has a hopeful and happy ending – though it’s not one without compromise. Both Neary and rice mill owner Oudom get what they want, a choice Dyna says was made to keep the play grounded in reality, while also providing a young audience with both female and male “role model” characters.
“If women have problems, why do they need to struggle by themselves? What about men?” Dyna wonders.
“If they have a girlfriend they should support her [with her life goals],” she says. This thought process guided her construction of Oudom who, despite wanting to marry a teenage girl half his age, turns out to be “reasonable”.
Young girls watching the play, Dyna hopes, will come away committed to their aspirations, not to patriarchal pressure.
“My advice to young women is please stay hopeful,” she says.