OU RANG OV, Kampong Cham - Tackling serious social issues like domestic violence
is not the usual aim of Ayai performances. The traditional Khmer theater usually
provides light stories with music, comedy and improvised banter.
However, a new Ayai tour telling of one woman's escape from her abusive husband is
changing that. And judging by the large, enthusiastic crowd on the Feb 15 opening,
audiences are receptive to the message. "Come down here!... I want to fight
you, you are a bad man," shouted one teenage boy, incensed by a scene of the
husband hitting his wife with a stick.
The tour organizers - the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Project Against Domestic
Violence (PADV) - claimed that 30,000 were attending the performances each night.
Crowd members said they were drawn by the fame of actor/playwright Prom Manh, but
most also knew the play's theme.
"We have been delighted by the response," said Louisa Norman, a PADV technical
adviser. "It has been remarkable watching whole communities responding, laughing
and crying along with the story."
A public awareness team from PADV and Women's Affairs is also touring, contacting
NGOs and officials for support during each performance. Before the show, a team member
speaks about domestic violence and where to find local help.
Drawing on the improvisational tradition of Ayai, the outcome of the play is variable.
The heroine will get away from her abusive husband each time, but the action she
takes will be dependent on the real-life services in the area.
"I was happy to write this kind of story [for PADV] in order to stop the violence
that we have a lot of in Cambodia," Prom Manh told the Post. "Anger causes
damage... stop the anger," he sang onstage.
PADV research indicates that one in six women is subject to domestic violence here,
and that culturally, wife-beating is often viewed as a normal family problem, not
to be interfered with or talked about.
The theater tour aims to challenge that mindset. "We want to tell the audience
to wake up, not just to keep quiet. We want them to discuss domestic violence openly,"
said actress You Sok Sothea, who plays the battered wife.
The tour is visiting villages in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Kampong
Thom, with a possible final show in Phnom Penh on March 29.
The Women's Media Center plans to base a TV production on the play and is also making
a documentary about domestic violence, including reactions to the play from abused
women, local authorities and the general public. The films - which will be screened
nationally and internationally later in the year - and the tour are being funded
by the Asia Foundation.
One elderly theatergoer, who acknowledged spousal abuse was a problem in his village,
thought the play would decrease violence "by about 80 percent". Noting
the dastardly husband got arrested in the end, he said: "After [wife-beaters]
watch that play, they will be thinking about what could happen to them."