Denzel Washington scholar gets his big break in theatre

Daniel Velasco plays a Cambodian teen in California in 'Year Zero.'

Daniel Velasco plays a Cambodian teen in California in ‘Year Zero.’

By Ricky Rillera

New York-born Daniel Velasco couldn’t be a lot happier these days than to count his blessings. First, he earned his degree last May from the Fordham University where he majored in theatre. Second, he turned 22 in June, and third, he landed the lead role in the comedic drama play “Year Zero,” his first professional project as an actor since graduating.

“Year Zero” is a production of Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) which premiered on September 11 and will run until October 5 at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. It is a play that is very relevant to immigrant communities as its message is about finding a direction and a home.

Daniel plays the role of Vuthy Vichea, a 16-year-old Cambodian-American living in Long Beach, Calif. in the 2000s, whose mother fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s and has recently died. He is a high school outcast who is divided between two worlds: “I’m too Cambodian for the black and Latin kids, and I’m not Cambodian enough for the Cambodian kids.”

In the role of Vuthy, Daniel identifies himself with the character as a weird kid and wears thick glasses. And since his best friend moved out and his mother died, the only person he can talk to is a human skull he keeps hidden in a cookie jar on top of the refrigerator. Vuthy periodically asks it for a blessing – in one instance to guide his mother’s soul to a place of eternal rest.

“Year Zero” revolves around four characters: Ra (Juliette Hing-Lee), Vuthy’s older sister; Glenn (Arthur Keng), Ra’s well-meaning boyfriend; and Han (Michael Rosete), the muscled bad boy who grew up next door and knows more about their mother’s past than Ra or Vuthy.

“I love the heart of the play,” Velasco told this writer in an interview. “It is a familiar story that a lot of people can relate to but it still has the truth of not only Cambodian life in America but also immigrant life as a whole. It gets to explore how we feel about our identity and where we fit in the world.”

At the opening night on Sept. 11, Velasco said it was an “incredible” night as the house was full and everyone in the audience seemed to love the play. “They were very responsive and gave us a standing ovation. It was just a great feeling to bring this show to life,” Daniel remarked candidly.

Daniel started acting when he was very young. His godfather, who was in the original cast of “Miss Saigon” that performed on Broadway, suggested to Daniel’s mother that he would be good at acting.

“He is also an actor/performer and I would definitely say that he inspired me to pursue acting,” Daniel said remembering how he started and had set a goal for himself.

As a young boy, he has had several TV show appearances and print and TV commercial credits for various major brands. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild (now known as SAF-AFTRA) since he was 10 years old. He ventured into martial arts, which he also now enjoys doing including kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. Velasco was a college sophomore when he made his main stage debut at Fordham as the lead actor of “Swooney Planet” and also as a supporting actor in “Eurydice.” He also acted in numerous plays while in high school at Loyola School in New York.

In “Year Zero,” he said his agent got him to audition for the part of Vuthy, two days after his graduation. He had to do the first two scenes which included a part with him beat-boxing and rapping in the room.

“I think I brought an energy and honesty to the role because I relate to a lot to the character,” Daniel responded when asked how he thought he was selected for the role.

“Year Zero” was written by Michael Golamco, an L.A.-based playwright and TV/Film writer, who is of Filipino and Chinese American lineage. “Year Zero” received acclaimed runs at Second Stage in New York City, Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, and at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles. He wrote The Law of Sacrifice (Season 3, episode 18) of NBC’s TV series “Grimm.”

Daniel had to leave his restaurant job in New York to work full time in this play. MRT provides the cast with their own studio apartments in MRT’s resident housing near the theatre.

With his mother Vivian Velasco, who is active in the Filipino American community

With his mother Vivian Velasco, who is active in the Filipino American community

Daniel received a Denzel Washington scholarship during his senior year at Fordham. He believes he was recommended by the faculty, and he is grateful for it. According to Daniel, Washington studied at Fordham and has since set up a grant for industry professionals to teach classes in the theatre program as well as set up a scholarship. He met Denzel this summer after a performance of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“Denzel is an incredible person and an actor who inspires me every day,” Daniel said.

Vivian, his mother, a long-time community leader, is as fulfilled as any parent would be to see her son performing at a professional level. During her early years, she, too, was performing for the Folklorico Filipino Dance Company of New York. After nurturing her son, guiding his progress and finally seeing him in the limelight, she says her labor and love over the years is not in vain. She is thankful to God and prouder still for how Daniel is pursuing his dream and what the future holds for her son.

Everyone who knows Vivian remember Daniel as the quiet, obedient and unassuming boy who used to tag along with his mother to every community cause his mother was a part of.

He said: “My mom is the most supportive mother I could ever ask for. She loves to see me perform and tell everyone what I’m doing in my professional life. I owe her for everything I am today.”

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