It’s the 2003–2004 school year in Carrollton, Texas, and Dara is navigating his senior year as a closeted Cambodian American thespian. Into his drama class walks Paul, a handsome, confident, openly gay kid from New York City.
That’s when things start to get interesting in the Alley Theatre’s premiere of out playwright Vichet Chum’s comedy High School Play: A Nostalgia Fest.
The production has been nostalgic for Chum, “a gay, queer Cambodian American” who graduated in 2004 from Creekview High School in Carrollton. And it’s “super-exciting” for out Montrose actor Jarred Tettey, who’s been entrusted with the role of Paul.
“This is the kind of high-school experience I would like to have had,” says Tettey, who was a theater student at Kempner High in Sugar Land, where he graduated in 2006.
Dizzying sparks fly between Paul and Dara, but “they are not sure how to name it,” says Chum. “Conversations around gender expression, race, and sexual identity are much different now than when I was in high school. We did not have as much vocabulary as we do now.”
Both Chum and Tettey have fond memories of their involvement in annual University Interscholastic League one-act play competitions, a rite of passage that plays a pivotal role in the production. The fictional Riverside High (a stand-in for Creekview) hopes to redeem itself from an unprecedented loss at UIL, and Paul’s arrival from New York City appears to be a godsend for the school’s competitive theater coaches, who make the bold choice to spotlight Paul in their one-act play entry. Adding to the drama is the negative community reaction to the play’s gay content. And yes, offended parents do make their voices heard.
Equally outspoken are the fictional school’s drama coaches—Melissa Pritchett as Ms. Blow and Todd Waite as Dirkson. “They are blunt—especially the way they talk to Dara, because he’s Asian,” says Tettey. “Their harsh rhetoric is funny in some ways, but it’s clear that it is problematic. That’s kind of the point—that funny [comments] can also be damaging. It’s definitely not a heavy play; it doesn’t get too dark, but today [such an episode] would be all over Facebook. It would make its way through the community and there would be a lot of heat on those people.”
At the real Creekview, Chum participated in three UIL shows that advanced to state, including scenes from Side Man, Dancing at Lughnasa and Picnic. But what he remembers most fondly—“my favorite performances, and the space where I felt the most joy”—was speech and debate. Those performances included duet acting and solo turns including Chum’s appearance in a monologue from Wonderland by Chay Yew, a gay Asian writer.
“It took me some time to come out. I was probably in my late twenties or early thirties,” he says. “I have been writing since I was a kid, but my first professional experience as a writer was in 2018—a play that I performed called Knyum, which means ‘I’ or ‘myself’ in the Cambodian language. My parents are from Cambodia; they were survivors of the Cambodian genocide and they met in the Philippines in a refugee camp.”
At vichetchum.com, the playwright describes Knyum this way: “[The main character] works the night shift at a hotel in NYC to support a meager artistic life. As the city rests, he encounters his dreams: those of his own and those of his parents who survived the genocide in Cambodia.”
Chum’s website is chock-full of insights into his identity and work, including his portrayals of gender-bending characters such as Song Lilling in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.
“I’ve played various roles that explore gender, race, and culture, and the duality of that,” he says.
In a press release for the Alley production of High School Play, Chum explains that the play “endeavors to be a love letter to today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s youth, to offer them grace, power, and love [to face] the journey to be the most authentic version of yourself.”
Rounding out the Alley cast are Richard Dávila, Sabrina Koss, Mai Lee, Kiaya Scott, and Daniel Velasco as Dara. The director is Tiffany Nichole Greene, a Houston native.
The play runs January 21–February 13 on the Hubbard stage, and tickets start at $28. For designated performances, discounted tickets are available for military, seniors, and any student or educator (regardless of age) with a valid student ID.
For more info and tickets, visit alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700.
This article appears in the January 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.