Cambodian Rock Band
Lauren Yee, with Songs by Dengue Fever
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Presenting the Signature Theatre Production in Association with
Alley Theatre, ACT Theatre/5th Avenue & Center Theatre Group,
A play about family displacement, trauma, and massive genocide is not a play one would normally expect often to laugh, to tap one’s foot to rock music, or to walk out feeling uplifted and inspired. But when the play is written by Bay Area native Lauren Yee, what else could be expected since the prolific, much-honored playwright often tackles difficult subjects while still finding humor and heart in the direst of situations. As she herself describes in a Berkeley Rep program interview with Katie Stevenson, “I describe a lot of my work as light existing within the dark.”
Underlying her Cambodian Rock Band – now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as part of a multi-theatre tour of the Signature Theatre production – is the murder of an estimated two million Cambodian citizens – men, women, children – during the years of Khmer Rouge dictatorship, 1975 – 1979. While Lauren Yee does not steer away from a realistic taste of the horrors, she couples that examination with the important, little-known history and the rich tradition of Cambodian rock music. During the horrific, five years of the genocide, ninety percent of Cambodia’s artists and musicians died, with much of the music itself also destroyed. But in the subsequent years since, much has been rediscovered through recorded tapes that were hidden; and it is that music that Lauren Yee and her Cambodian Rock Band honors.
After its March 2018 premiere at South Coast Repertory, I first saw in Summer 2019 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this powerful eye-opener of difficult history that is packed – as only Yee can – with both laugh-out-loud humor and with intermittent showcases of rock concert music worthy of its own, separate show. From there, the show eventually made its way to Signature Theatre’s Off-Broadway production, which now is in this midst of a multi-city tour. Five years later after its premiere, four of the six principles, the director, and most of the creative team are still with the production. Much of this review repeats my initial reactions of their efforts at OSF, with of course updates for the current performers and performances. Even more than when I saw the production in Summer 2019, this touring Cambodian Rock Band is a must-see with a script that is gaspingly gripping and surprisingly upbeat, with a cast that is nothing less than stellar beyond words, and with a creative team led by Director Chay Yew that does not let a minute of the two-hour, fifteen-minute evening pass without impressive arrays of lighting, sound, and emotional impact.
In her play with music, Lauren Yee inserts songs by the Los Angeles based ,Cambodian-inspired band, Dengue Fever, whose music is a mixture of ‘60s Cambodian pop and American, psychedelic rock along with strong hints of blues, metal, and funk. The playwright uses the upbeat, contagious, hard-beat music to contrast with the unspeakable tragedies of genocide as well as to highlight the indomitable spirit of survival of the Cambodian people themselves. Cambodian Rock Band is her tribute – using in part the native language of the victims and survivors alike – of a people and a culture that not only survived a near-complete genocide but have learned once again how to thrive.
The lens of her story is one family among hundreds of thousands that was near annihilated in those few years and whose story went largely untold to the next generation – that is until one American-born daughter of Cambodian parents decides to return to their country to seek justice for all the families lost.
Neary is part of a group of lawyers who in 2008 have been in Cambodia for two years building a case against Duch, a Khmer Rouge official of the infamous prison S21who is awaiting trial for overseeing the torture and deaths of almost 20,000 innocents. While there are seven known survivors, there is rumor of an eighth; and Neary thinks there is a good chance that person can be found before what will be thirty years later the first trial of any Khmer Rouge perpetrators of the genocide.
To Neary’s surprise and consternation, her father, Chum, suddenly shows up at her hotel in Phnom Penh just days before an important hearing. This is particularly suspicious because Chum is a man who has never shown much interest in his homeland or in fact, in anything Cambodian. Why he is there soon becomes clear as he in futility tries to persuade Neary to give up her investigation of Duch’s atrocities, both believing the present government will never convict Duch and also fearing for her safety. As she pushes her dad to talk more about a life in Cambodia he has never shared with her, she begins to realize there is much more to his story that he has never shared and is reluctant to admit to her now. When he refuses to talk, she heads out to discover for herself the truths of his past.
The Chum we meet is a spry, upbeat man who bears a constant, big-toothed grin and who appears to find immense excitement and joy in the simplest things (like fish that eat dead skin from his feet). As the original Chum since the play’s premiere, Joe Ngo continually sends his voice on a rollercoaster ride through all possible vocal scales, riding the ups and downs quite joyfully with paused emphasis on particular words when Chum wants to make a special point to his somewhat exasperated, nonplused daughter. After she leaves him to parts unknown, Chum decides to start sending her voice messages with pieces of his secret story in return for hints where she has gone, reenacting their own version of “Let’s Make a Deal” that they used to play together when she was a child.
Chum then begins to relive where he was that fateful Cambodian New Year’s Day, 1975, taking us back to the night when the Khmer Rouge ousted the legitimate government. As we soon learn what Neary has never known, Chum was actually the electric guitar player of a five-person rock group called the Cyclos. Through his memories, we listen to the recording session his band was in the midst of making as the tanks and bombs arrive. As more of his past is revealed, Joe Ngo’s award-worthy performance is painful to watch while at the same time, we can only deeply admire the actor’s ability to capture some small part of what tens of thousands underwent during those awful years.
Back in the opening moments of the play, an immaculately dressed, man roams down the aisle of the Roda Theatre and moves to the stage to interact with the audience, bringing much charm, smiles, and humor. With hands proudly on hips and often close at hand with all-knowing eyes and an expression full of smirk, he observes on stage the unfolding of the play’s story. Occasionally, he interrupts in order to make pointed observations to us as the audience, telling us with an air of sinister mystery, “Even when I am not here, I am here … watching, watching … Welcome to my show.”
The ever-present, suave, smooth-talker at times suddenly becomes more like an impish Puck, jumping in to join with gusto and glee a musical interlude by the Cyclos. But in fact, he is none other than the notorious Duch himself, played with a mix of chilling calm and surprising spontaneity by Bay Area native and stage favorite for several decades, Frances Jue. Jue finds ways to make almost human this most monster of a man whose desperate and unsuccessful search for sleep racks his very being, ironically finding rare solace in the very thing his chosen regime has eliminated: music.
Besides playing the Cyclos lead singer Sothea whose clear, often haunting voice soars in sustained magnificence, Geena Quintos is equally impressive as Neary, the mission-driven, serious-minded daughter of Chum. Her outward impatience with her dad effectively hides the love that she in the end proves is very much there. Her own search for her father’s Cambodian roots leads her to a life-changing night, one where she is joined by her father as Lauren Yee’s play also explores father-daughter dynamics in a climax where both actors further prove their mettle in a stunning, heart-touching scene.
Chay Yew directs the ongoing back-and-forth interaction of music and story, with each part providing its own important, independent narrative while fully supporting that of the other. Takeshi Kata’s scenic design provides a backdrop of vivid signage markings of a modern Phnom Penh as well as the neighborhood back streets of an earlier city on the brink of takeover. The design of S21 is abruptly stark, with the lighting of David Weiner adding the non-forgiving blight of a room of no good. However, the lighting he extends each performance of the Cyclos has all the flash and blink of a rock concert. Mikhail Fiksel and Megumi Katayama’s joint design of sound is a huge player in the evening’s success and impact, not only in balancing the blend of instruments and voices, but also in the many effects of approaching war and the terror of imprisonment. Finally, Linda Cho’s costumes visually establish the alternating time periods and settings while also highlighting the unique personalities we meet.
The eleven Cambodian rock songs are performed by five of the show’s six actors: Joe Ngo (Chum), Moses Villarama (Leng and Neary’s boyfriend, Ted), Geena Quintos (Neary and Sothea), Abraham Kim (Cyclos member, Rom), and Jane Lui (Cyclos member, Pou).
As pictures of only a few of the two million victims slowly populate a screen behind the band, its members take the stage a final time to remind us in triumphant style that in their memory, Cambodian music once again is stirring hearts and creating smiles. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s staging of Signature Theatre’s touring production of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band is a not-to-be-missed chance to learn first-hand of Cambodia’s intertwining history of tragedy and music and to be inspired by a father-daughter story of rekindled love and new-found respect.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
Cambodian Rock Band continues through April 2, 2023, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre (2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA) as a multi-theatre-sponsored, touring production by Signature Theatre. Tickets are available at https://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Please note: All audience members are required to wear masks inside the theatre.
Photo Credits: Linda Lane/Berkeley Rep