Post image for An Interview with Morm Sokly

(Photo of Morm Sokly taken from video interview featured below. This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas.).

An Interview with Morm Sokly, Cambodian theater artist and author of the new play, The Tooth of Buddha – By Catherine Filloux

In this interview, Cambodian theater artist, Morm Sokly, describes her play The Tooth of Buddha, written in the traditional Cambodian (Khmer) form of Lakhaon Kamnap, “Poetry Theater.”

Morm Sokly Interview from CultureHub on Vimeo.

I wanted to share Sokly’s work, which is exemplary of innovation, in the salon, since Sokly cannot visit the U.S.  The subject of the relic teeth of Buddha for a stage play is not a common subject in contemporary Cambodia. Sokly is a writer and chanter of Khmer poetry, as well a performer and teacher of Yiké, a form of traditional Khmer theater, and of lakhon niyeay, Spoken drama. I have known Sokly since 2001, when she performed in my play Photographs from S-21, and I have written about her through the years. Sokly and I worked on The Tooth of Buddha with Khmer translator Suon Bunrith during a workshop at AMRITA, as part of TCG’s New Generations–Future Collaborations program. Sokly directed The Tooth of Buddha at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh and the play was featured in Khmer Voices Rising: An International Freedom-to-Write Literary Festival at Brown University; directed by Connie Crawford. “The Tooth of Buddha expanded my Western understanding of storytelling,” Connie writes. “We relished the challenge of embodying the shape shifts, enlivening the bold language and soaring to the heights of imagination. It is a profound piece which energized us as we worked on it.”  In Cambodian poetry there are at least 53 types of styles of verses, and at least 60 different ways of reciting. The Tooth of Buddha is in verse: sometimes spoken, other times chanted.

In this excerpt a young couple, Toanta Reach and Hema Mealea are sent to bring the sacred tooth of Buddha to a safe place in Sri Lanka.  Along the way they bury the tooth to keep it safe.

TOANTA REACH
Only Mother Earth can give warm protection:
(Talking to Mother Earth.) We want to keep the tooth with you for the night.

(While they bury the tooth, an ARAHAT MONK appears in an orange robe. [Note: The Aharat monk is a supreme monk who can transform himself.]  Toanta Reach and Hema Mealea see him and hide the tooth.)

ARAHAT MONK
Please, don’t worry, you two.  I’m here because I saw the merciful tooth.
I want to pay respect to the ash of Gottama, so don’t be afraid.
I am an Arahat monk.  I don’t hide my past.  I gained merit–I respect the tooth as if it were my parents.
I see you’re both in a rush. Where are you going?

TOANTA REACH
We are bringing the tooth to Sri Lanka Island to escape from the rebels who want to harm it.

ARAHAT MONK
If so, don’t you worry, on the way if you meet any trouble, you can think of my name.
Please go get some rest as in the morning you’ll need to travel again, and I wish you safety.  I now shall leave you.

TOANTA REACH/HEMA MEALEA
Yes, thank you/ Venerable One.

(They see the monk off, bury the tooth and lie down.)

HEMA MEALEA
Dear husband, I can’t sleep–I’m thinking of our father.

TOANTA REACH
My dearest, please stop crying.  I’ll sing a lullaby for you.
Please, put your head on my lap, sweetie, you don’t need to be worried.
I’m here with you, to sing for you, to help you sleep.

(Hema Mealea smiles at her husband and tries to sleep.  He caresses her forehead and sings in the style of the traditional Khmer “Lullaby Poem.”)

Oh my sweetie, my soul.  It’s late at night.
Now please sleep.
You rest on my lap and I’ll sing you to sleep.
Oh wild rooster don’t crow, please don’t crow to wake up my darling.
Sweetie, you rest on my lap, sleep well.
I’m here to take care of you.

Sokly explains that The Tooth of Buddha is a portrait of the miracle of Buddhism: those who do good receive goodness.  Those who do evil receive evil. Sokly learned to recite poetry from a series of masters at RUFA. She also learned from various achas: laymen who are familiar with Buddhist rituals. When she would hear a new kind of recitation, she would ask to learn it. The masters at RUFA were: Sam Maly, Yan Borin, Yin Yean, Van Son and Sum Sovanny.  Sokly is one of the few students who was passionate about this form of theater and carried on the tradition.  During training the master chants and the student follows him/her; vocal exercises are used at the beginning. “You need a very special voice, and to use compassion to chant the verses,” she says. Sokly is a practicing Buddhist; the Buddhist theme in her work helps her strength as a human being.

After the couple Toanta Reach and Hema Mealea fall asleep in The Tooth of Buddha, the Naga, a male serpent, comes out of the sea and steals the sacred tooth.  When they wake Toanta Reach and Hema Mealea find the tooth missing. The Aharatha monk appears.

NARRATOR
The Great Monk knows by his magic eyes. He sees the Naga King who steals the holy tooth. He transforms himself into a Garuda and dives into the sea. He finds where the Naga sleeps and calls him to come out. The Naga King hears the call and transforms into a handsome gentleman.

(The monk becomes a GARUDA [mythical bird] then dives into the sea. The Naga King, now a gentleman but still with visible scales on his garment, welcomes the Garuda King. [Note: The Naga-turned-to-Gentleman transformation is done with two different actors.]

NAGA (GENTLEMAN)
Oh Great Garuda. I, King Naga, pay respect to you.
King, what brings you here at nighttime? What happened to your world? Was there a drought or wild fires?

GARUDA
We don’t have any of that.
But there is one thing that King Naga should not do.
You worry others
Then you go to sleep as if nothing happened.

NAGA (GENTLEMAN)
Oh, Garuda, what are you talking about?
I don’t understand what you mean, please tell me.

GARUDA
You do know, don’t pretend, Naga. You stole the holy tooth from those two.
You’re hiding, this isn’t the attitude of a brave person.

NAGA (GENTLEMAN)
Stop, damn Garuda, go away from my palace. Yes, I stole the tooth but what does it matter to you? Or, do you want the tooth too?

GARUDA
No, I just felt pity when I saw the tears burst from their eyes.
It’s not yours–give it back to them.

NAGA (GENTLEMAN)
No, this tooth is mine. What do you know, idiot? Go away or I’ll kill you.

(Fighting, the Naga-Gentleman takes out his sword and attacks the Garuda. Then the Naga-Gentleman reverts completely to the Naga to try to defeat the Garuda. Instead, the Naga is defeated. The Garuda turns back into the Aharatha monk and raises the Naga up, giving him compassion.)

NAGA
Thank you so much for forgiving me.

AHARATHA MONK
Never mind, it’s just a small matter. I know you are a good Naga.
You shouldn’t do evil and create trouble.

NAGA
Yes, Venerable One, I wished to be reborn in heaven
So I stole the tooth because I thought I could realize my dream.

AHARATHA MONK
Hey, Naga, your fate has not yet been decided, don’t worry. Please give me the tooth.

NAGA
Yes, Holy Venerable One.

(The Naga turns away and spits out the tooth, giving it to the monk. The Naga retreats. The Aharatha monk flies to Toanta Reach and Hema Mealea. He prays and they appear, bowing before him.)

TOANTA REACH/HEMA MEALEA
Holy, Venerable One/ Please help us.

MONK
All right, you two, here is the tooth, come and take it.
On your way, if you meet any struggles, please think my name.

TOANTA REACH/HEMA MEALEA
Thank you so much Venerable One/ Farewell.

(They get into a boat and depart. The monk watches them go and exits.)

NARRATOR
The Prince and Princess step onto the dock of Tamalith
To get on the ship.
The merchant sails the ship across the long sea.

(Other NAGAS dance to block the boat.)

NARRATOR
The fast ship goes,
Then the Nagas come to stop the ship for seven days,
And the ship is unable to move.

(Toanta Reach and Hema Mealea pray.)

NARRATOR
People on the ship are terrified—
Crying, afraid of dying.
Toanta Reach and Mealea think of the name of the monk.
Suddenly Garudas appear all over the sea.

(Other GARUDAS fly around the Nagas.)

NARRATOR
All the Nagas see the Garudas, and are frightened.
They swim away to hide themselves at the bottom of the sea.
And the ship arrives to Sri Lanka Island.

(The ship arrives at the dock. End of scene.)

In her interview Morm Sokly also discusses her passion for preserving Khmer culture; finding forgiveness and inner peace through the Buddhist tradition; and the challenges of being a woman playwright in Cambodia: http://vimeo.com/66417346

Special thanks to Sarin Chuon, Scot Stafford and Cambodian Living Arts for filming Sokly’s interview. The Cambodian dancer Chankethya Chey is the interviewer and translator.


Morm Sokly was born in 1965 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and began her studies in traditional Khmer theater as well as modern theater, in 1981 at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA).  She graduated in 1988 upon which she immediately began to teach acting at RUFA, while working as a professional actress.  Morm Sokly acted with Annemarie Prins, from the Netherlands, in the play 3 Years, 8 Months, 20 Days and with Singaporean artist, William Teo, in his play Year Zero.  Sokly has performed the role of the Young Woman in Photographs from S-21 in Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore.


Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright who writes about human rights and social justice. Her more than twenty plays have been produced in NYC and around the world. Catherine’s new one-woman play about the civil rights movement and the KKK premieres in 2014 at La MaMa, where she is an Artist in Residence. Her libretti include: New Arrivals (Houston Grand Opera), Where Elephants Weep, (Chenla, Cambodia) and The Floating Box (Critics Choice, Opera News.)  Catherine is currently working on a new musical All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go with Jimmy Roberts and John Daggett.