Monday, June 10, 2013

DEMONSTRA production notes: The Chameleon Prince Khangkham

One of the challenges with DEMONSTRA is referring to particular Lao legends that are already becoming obscure among our youth and even adults in the US after nearly 40 years. One of these is the tale of the Chameleon Prince Khangkham. As a Lao American writer it goes against much of my training to retell the story straight or without some sense of levity and humor interjected.

The name of the story is quite evocative, but in actual retelling, most versions of the story contain logic gaps that contribute to what appear to be significant narrative weaknesses. It's tempting to consider this story more of a minor part of the canon. Presently, it could be argued many collections would lose little if they jettison the tale entirely. Indeed, many have already. Can it be salvaged with a little reworking? Will we see a modern Lao storyteller come forward who can bring the story into alignment with contemporary values and narrative standards while retaining the essential Lao spirit with which the story was originally told?

In the future, perhaps other writers will be able to flesh it out into a more fascinating adventure that fully vindicates its persistence among our traditions. Or someone can present the context that explains its deeper significance.  I can see some amazing directions the story can take if we were committed to it, but at the moment, it's not quite clear to a general audience, even the ones with a passion for the fantastic.

Several very different tones are possible, depending on the tastes of the particular storyteller. This can range from operatic, in the vein of Turandot, or even to the extreme of a Lovecraftian screwball sex comedy, although the latter is a little less likely. Most will probably opt for something a little more moderate.

But here's a very rough recap of the story:

Once, the king spared the life of a beautiful unmarried woman who gave birth to a talking golden chameleon. The mother and son went on to live in a small hut by the gardens of the king. She named her son Khangkham.

Her son once desired to see the seven daughters of the king, perching on a tree near the fragrant flowers. He became particularly enamored with the youngest daughter. The golden chameleon teased her as she sat beneath the tree by touching her cheek with his long tail. She could not see who did it, no matter how hard she looked. She grew quite annoyed.

While six of the daughters returned to the palace, the youngest stayed behind to enjoy the garden a little more. Khangkham revealed himself and informed her that she was now his fiancee, and his mother would go to ask for her hand from the king. His mother had only a small bunch of bannanas to offer as a gift.

The king was irked by her bizarre request and modest gift, so he offered a challenge. If she could build a bridge of silver and gold with elaborate peacock designs from her hut to the palace, he would grant his daughter's hand in marriage to the odd chameleon. If not, Khangkham's mother would lose her head.

His mother left distraught, but when she told her son of the king's challenge, he said baw pen yan. There was no problem. But to succeed, he would need the help of the villagers to summon the father and mother of precious metals to build the bridge. Understandably curious, everyone agreed to assist.

Khangkham instructed them to walk through the forest with their baskets and clear away all of the trees for four days. He then told them to set the baskets as traps to catch whatever flew into them, and take the contents of those baskets home. When they returned to the village, he told them to dig a hole 18 feet wide, 30 feet long and 18 feet deep to hold the father and mother of precious metals.

He told them they now had the father and mother held in the village, and they could get all of the silver and gold they needed. Construction could begin.

Once the crossbeams were done, he needed elaborate peacock designs engraved on the bridge, but this was beyond the skill of the villagers. So, Khangkham made a wish to celestial entities to inspire skilled artisans to come to the village, and the wish was granted. The artists were amenable to assisting the unusual golden chameleon.

The bridge was finished, and so the chameleon gathered all of the villagers to go to the palace with him in a great wedding procession. The king was obligated to keep his word, and he married his daughter to Khangkham. But they had to live outside of the palace.

In their hut, Khangkham told her that he was simply an ordinary chameleon, and if she loved him, she could live with him. But if not, she could go away with a handsome young man, if one strolled by.

A short time later, such a man did come by, and offered to take her away with him. But she informed him that she was married to the golden chameleon. The young man went away, but came back the next day, and the next. And while he was charming, she refused to leave with him every time. But she also noticed he always came by when Khangkham was not home. On one visit, she noticed as the man flirted away that the golden chameleon's skin was in a corner of the hut.

She threw the skin into the fire. "He's out of his skin, now he won't go back into it again."

"Oh, wife, why did you do that?!?" Khangkham wept. "That skin was the source of my magic. I could have built us a palace with that power."

"I don't need magical power, I just want to live with my husband like a normal couple, that's all, said the princess."

And so they lived happily together, until one day an unstoppable army attacked her father's kingdom and they summoned Khangkham for help. Khangkham went to confront the enemy and defeated the entire army himself, sending them into retreat.

The king saw Khangkham was indeed a worthy successor and relinquished his throne to the man who had once been a golden chameleon, and they were even able to live in the palace happily ever after, with a few adventures in between.

No comments: