The new American play ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ has garnered critical and popular acclaim this year as it guides audiences through the complex association of rock ‘n’ roll music, totalitarianism and ensuing resilience during the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia.
The play follows the relationship between a Cambodian-American father, Chum, who fled the 1970s' Khmer Rouge regime to start a new life in the U.S., and his daughter Neary. Amid the bright lights and sounds of the music concert-like setting, the play skips back and forth between life under the Khmer Rouge and a daughter’s gradual discovering of her musician father’s past during those years.
Playwright Lauren Yee won the 2018 Horton Foote Prize for outstanding new American play for ‘Cambodian Rock Band.’ She also won two other prominent American playwriting awards this year for the play. Yee, who studied drama and theater at Yale, was born and raised in San Francisco.
Critics have praised the play's use of humor and music to enrich the narrative. The play highlights the ultra-communist regime’s absolute ban on music, yet also the resilience of arts and culture, with timely use of Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll music. Yee uses the sound and beats to accentuate joyous and triumphant moments for the characters.
The play toggles between the perspective of two different generations, attempting to understand each other. The live music, she said, attempts to elevate the experience of watching the play and helps propel the story.
“It’s a joyful, defiant celebration of Cambodian artists as they existed before the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy them,” Yee told VOA Khmer.
Yee said she was inspired to tell this story after attending a music festival in 2011 and a performance by Dengue Fever, which features Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol. The band’s reinvention of Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll classics from popular 1960s and 70s singers Sin Sisamuth and Ros Sereysothea sparked a curiosity in Lauren Yee that took her down the path of the music’s origin to its near-decimation during the Khmer Rouge era.
Yee recalled thinking at the time ‘’there’s something really interesting and compelling here’’ and a story to tell.
The play took time to materialize. It was only after she got a commission in 2015 from the South Coast Repertory in Orange County, near Los Angeles, and immersed herself in the area’s Cambodian-American community, that she began to find the outlines of ‘Cambodian Rock Band.’ She eventually would work with members of Dengue Fever to learn about Cambodian rock music and its unique sound. The play debuted in March 2018 at the repertory.
The play has been running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since March and will finish its run in mid-October. The public relations and media manager of the festival, CJ Martinez, said that “Cambodian Rock Band” is currently the most popular play at the respected festival in Ashland, OR.
“Somehow these actors, musicians and musician-actors that are in the play, just find new ways to thrill and engage their audiences,” Martinez told VOA Khmer.
“I can also say with confidence that it is certainly one of the most talked about plays in our repertory this season.”
The play won the 2019 Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association New Play Award. Yee also won the 2019 Whiting Award in the Drama writing category, which is ‘‘based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come.’’
‘’Cambodian Rock Band’’ played for a month in Chicago at Victory Gardens Theater in April and May. It is set to make its New York debut in February and March 2020, during a five-week run at Signature Theater.
Part of the five-person cast, Joe Ngo, who plays Chum, said it was hard to have to deal with his personal experiences of growing up with parents who were Khmer Rouge survivors and play a character who fled the regime.
“There is a part of me that it makes it hard to separate that [acting] from what I feel my parents went through and so when I hear [the character’s words] in my own voice, it’s hard to divide or divorce those two things,” he told VOA Khmer in a recent phone interview. “And sometimes it really triggers some deep emotional responses.”
“Cambodian Rock Band” attempts to find joyous moments even in traumatic events or in people’s personal reactions to dynamic experiences, the playwright said.
“When you face something incredibly hard in your life, sometimes it’s not always about shutting down,’’ Yee said by phone. ‘’Sometimes people open up and make a point to make jokes and see lighter things. So, to me, that’s where humor lives in this piece. It’s a defense mechanism for the characters.”