‘See You Yesterday’ Dramatizes the Cambodian Genocide with Circus Arts (4.5 stars)

See You Yesterday is a traveling act of Cambodians who are the second generation survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. They perform circus and acrobatic stunts that are striking to see and convey the pain of that period.

I have to confess that, with the American fixation on the Vietnam War, I didn’t know much about the Cambodian Civil War and genocide until I looked it up online. Nearly two million people died, which was 25% of their population. That was less than 50 years ago, and more than 10 times the fraction of the population that died in the American Civil War, which still scars us 150 years later. Normally I would avoid such a topic, but we are Bostonians. We know it’s important to learn, acknowledge, and remember the past. That’s why the See You Yesterday is so important.

You can’t ask, What’s it like to be descended from such recent trauma, but it’s not like anything. There is nothing in modern America to compare it to. Perhaps that’s why See You Yesterday takes place in the abstract. The show has very little exposition, and with the Cambodian accent, little is communicated, even when they speak in English. Captions projected onto the wall would help set context.

But you can see the dappled light projected onto the stage as though of brown grass. You’ll see Communist authorities rounding up suspects and making them grovel. They take prisoners and even make them beat each other. In one scene, happy villagers are playing and selling goods in the street. Soon, there’s mass grave of bodies.

The show also has plenty of straight up circus stunts that are playful instead of set against horror, and some humor. It was strange to mix humor with terror, but as Mel Brooks said about The Producers, the musical comedy that dealt with Hitler, sometimes comedy is the only way to talk about tragedy.

Still, I don’t know that we’re “talking” about tragedy so much as wondering what is going on when an acrobat in a monkey mask does circus flips through the fields of corpses. Maybe it’s supposed to convey innocence of the animal. More exposition and context would have grounded the show and made it more accessible to a foreign audience. Much of the time I didn’t know what was going on.

Throughout these vignettes, which take place over about an hour with no intermission, the 19 performers, both men and women, tumble, perform circus stunts, and acrobatics, with no staging and hardly any props. For example, when the Communists are beating up villagers, they flip and tumble as in a movie fight scene. Some acts were impressive, such as contact juggling when performers let crystal balls roll across their limbs and chests. Others, you can see anywhere, such as the acrobat who climbs a free-standing ladder to its top, like he’s on stilts.

The show has an alien feel to it. They begin with a prayer that even the backstage crew come out for, and during the main acts, the entire cast of performers remains on stage, playing around. This distracts from where the focus should be.

It’s a hair-raising but important experience, like watching a war film. Although I wish that I had learned more, and the stunts didn’t all wow us, the shocking dramatizations are worth seeing. I’ll give See You Yesterday 4.5 stars.

Find See You Yesterday on the Arts Emerson website, and upcoming ArtsEmerson events including the Boston Asian American Film Festival and Passengers, the Canadian circus.