Music is often referred to as a universal language but so, unfortunately, is genocide. In Cambodian Rock Band, playwright Lauren Yee blends the improbable combination of hippie-era surf rock with the horrors of the Cambodian genocide in a story that is both global in scale and deeply personal, both universally relatable and intimately focused on the atrocities of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia, when Pol Pot and his henchmen exterminated one-third of the nation’s population, including 90 percent of the musicians in the small Southeast Asian nation’s thriving music scene. The story is by turns family drama, comedy, mystery, and rock concert.
Among the henchmen working with Pol Pot was Duch, the head of the S21 prison (i.e., death) camp. Twenty thousand Cambodian citizens entered S21. Only a handful came out alive. Yee’s play — would you believe me if I told you it was a comedy? — is narrated by Duch, the first of Pol Pot’s henchmen to be prosecuted for war crimes decades after the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign of terror ended.
“Music is the soul of Cambodia,” Duch riffs in an opening monologue. “It’s true! But that’s not what you think of when you think of Cambodia, is it? You think of something a little more like this. Genocide genocide genocide. Boo.”
Yee’s play unfolds in layers, moving deftly through time in a nonlinear way. We start out in 2008. Neary, an American of Cambodian descent has come to Phnom Penh as a lawyer with a human rights group seeking to prosecute Duch. Neary is surprised when her father, Chum, who has been in the U.S. since he emigrated from Cambodia 30 years ago, shows up at her hotel room. The play’s first act is a whirlwind of endearing father-daughter dialogue before we learn the real reason for Chum’s return to Cambodia, at which point we journey back with Chum to 1975, and the eve of the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Phnom Penh.
What makes Cambodian Rock Band different from anything else you’ve seen on stage is Cyclo, the fictional rock band that punctuates Yee’s narrative with full-on rock performances, turning Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater into a rock concert featuring a combination of classic Cambodian rock songs and newer songs by the Cambodian-influenced California band Dengue Fever.
I have to admit that my jaw dropped when Neary and Chum, characters I had gotten to know and love in Act One, morphed into their Cyclo alter-egos. Sure, the band had opened up the play and performed two full songs before the narrative started, but the actors portraying Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) and Chum (Joe Ngo) morphed so completely when they transitioned between their 2008 and 1975 characters that at first I did not realize they were the same performers. In addition to acting, Ngo, Ishibashi, and the other members of Cyclo are also performing soul-searing rock music, with Ishibashi crooning sultry vocals in both English and Khmer, Chum wailing on his guitar, and Tim Lui rocking the bass.
Cambodian Rock Band’s appearance at Arena Stage is part of a larger national tour of the 2018 production developed by Signature Theatre in New York. The play was meant to be a part of Arena’s 2021/22 season, but then COVID intervened. Because of these complications, the production you will see at Arena is almost a full replica of the acclaimed 2018 Signature version, with direction by Chay Yew, and lead performances by Joe Ngo as Chum, and Francis Jue as Duch. Also returning to roles they developed in earlier productions of Cambodian Rock Band are Brooke Ishibashi as Neary/Sothea, Jane Lui as Pou/S21 Guard, and Abraham Kim as Rom/Journalist. Only Tim Liu as Ted/Cadre/Leng is new to his role.
Ngo and Jue’s familiarity with their characters is evident from the outset. Both actors bring depth and sincerity to roles that fit like a second skin, easily putting them among my favorite performances of the season. Ngo displays a range of personality traits as he shifts from an aged father masking years of trauma beneath a facade of awkward dad jokes, to a younger version of himself where he experiences trauma so devastating that it is at times hard to watch. Jue won a Lucille Lortel Award for his 2018 performance of Duch, the omniscient narrator turned torturer who watches atrocities unfold with chilling detachment. Much of the heavy lifting of imbuing a story about genocide with comedy falls on Ngo and Jue, and their delivery of Yee’s brilliant dialogue makes it work.
Yee’s play packs a lot into a few hours, and with the jumps through time, and shifts in character, it would be easy to lose the thread of this story, but a robust design team prevents that from happening. Costume Designer Linda Cho (with assistance from Herin Kaputkin) delineates the eras. 2008 Chum sports a fanny pack, slacks, and comfortable sneakers — the ultimate dad wear — while 1975 Chum is a full-on 1970s-groove daddy. Set design by Takeshi Kata places us firmly in a gritty, crowded Phnom Penh, with a series of shop signs of the sort that populate many developing cities around the globe. You can almost hear the horns honking and feel the dirt on the signs.
The Khmer Rouge was one of many regimes that popped up around the globe in the mid-20th century while the U.S. and the USSR duked it out for global ideological domination. Yee’s play is a gift to anyone with an interest in history or really anyone who likes to laugh, party, and appreciate that life is at times violent and uncertain, but it is always precious.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
Cambodian Rock Band plays through August 27, 2023, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($56–$95) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.). Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.
The program for Cambodian Rock Band is online here.
Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.
COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in occasional mask-required performances. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.
Cambodian Rock Band
By Lauren Yee
Featuring Songs by Dengue Fever
Directed by Chay Yew
A Signature Theatre Production in Association with Alley Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and ACT Theatre/5th Avenue