“Between,” a one-person coming-of-age story, written and performed by University of Minnesota Duluth graduate Deryck Hak, opened Thursday night at Renegade.
Strike that. “Performed” is not an appropriate description. “Shared” is much more on point with something this personal.
“Between” begins with Hak reading words off a piece of paper. Perhaps it is a letter, perhaps not. We have questions about this document, every time Hak reads from it.
Hak has his own questions, the biggest being why his mother flatly refuses to let him travel to Cambodia, where his family is from. He talks about going to church and school in Carver, Minnesota, where fitting in took some effort, and step by step, “Between” comes into focus.
As a title “Between” reflects multiple dialectical tensions, including those of race and sexuality, but ultimately Hak’s journey of exploration is about being a Cambodian American.
One of the strengths of “Between” is how Hak establishes a rapport with the audience long before he broaches any of the larger issues he has to talk about. There is a lot of humor up front in this play. Time and time again the primary target of Hak’s critical eye is himself, further strengthening that rapport.
Critically, when Hak talks about the weighty issues at the heart of “Between,” things remain intimate, but never get heavy. Renegade’s stage is the perfect venue for this production because the theater’s back rows are the closest to the stage in town.
“Between” played to a boisterous audience, clearly happy to be there. Hak’s revelations about how he ended a middle school relationship earned a pair of large groans from the audience
Robert Lee’s striking scenic design offers eight rocks suspended a few inches off of the stage, tethered to fabric arranged to look like thin stemmed flowers, mirrored-imaged by a small lectern. Before the performance, writing in Khmer, a language without spaces between individual words, is projected across the stage.
I was going to say that during the performance family photographs and other images are projected, but again I am going to maintain they were shared with the audience.
“Between” is directed by Tom Isbell and his note in the program traces the history of his involvement back to when Hak first had an idea for a play several years ago at UMD. If you tallied up the time spent on this relationship, clearly Isbell has spent way more time mentoring the playwright than directing the performer.
Because I knew about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge decades before Hak was even born, I actually found myself identifying with his mother. But for younger audience members — Hak’s contemporaries — most of what is revealed about the Cambodian genocide is going to be eye opening.
And on the off chance that the universality of Hak’s journey is not clear during his one hour’s traffic on stage, the final line of “Between” states the moral of his story in terms so plain and simple as to command our assent.
Note: A virtual screening of “Between” and panel with the artists will be made available after the run of the show.
If you go
What: “Between,” written and performed by Deryck Hak
Where: Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior St., Duluth
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22-Saturday, Oct. 23; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24-Saturday, Oct. 30
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the Duluth News Tribune.