Trying to figure out when the seed for Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian Rock Band” was actually planted is a tricky thing.
Do you start with the Vietnam war, and the vestiges of an American imperialist legacy in Southeast Asia? That was when the Far East Network broadcast rock & roll — Rolling Stones, Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles — to American soldiers serving in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines.
Or maybe you could start earlier than that, when the French colonized Indochina and brought in Afro-Cuban and French New Wave influences to the region. Cambodian psychedelic pop-rock became the rage in the 1960s and 1970s, until the Khmer Rouge stormed the capital in 1975, when Pol Pot and his followers singled out the educated — doctors, lawyers, professionals, teachers, artists — to be executed. Many Cambodian musicians died; the Khmer Rouge also destroyed books, records, and almost all traces of Cambodia’s culture.
If Pol Pot had his way, that would’ve been it for Cambodian psych-pop-rock music, but art has a way of coming back to life — in ways that are truly unexpected.
So maybe the birth of “Cambodian Rock Band” is truly a rebirth, midwifed by the band Dengue Fever. The Los Angeles band formed in 2001, inspired by the music that keyboardist Ethan Holtzman discovered while traveling in Cambodia. They scoured Long Beach — home of the biggest Cambodian enclave in the United States — for a singer, and discovered Chhom Nimol, who was a famous singer in her native Cambodia.
In Dengue Fever’s first album, they featured covers of songs by famous Cambodian artists like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, Pan Ron. Subsequent releases were all original tunes, but it was enough to turned the heads of countless hipsters on to Cambodian psych rock — and the tragic history of Cambodia as well.
Yee, considered a rising star in the theater world, says Dengue Fever her gateway to Cambodia’s past. “When I was in grad school in San Diego, a good friend dragged me to a music festival to see Dengue Fever. As soon as I heard their music, I was hooked. It felt fresh, electric, but also, so very familiar.”
South Coast Rep’s CrossRoads Commissioning Project commissioned her to write a play a few years ago. She had 10 days in Orange County to research anything she wanted. “I got to indulge in all my nerdiest fantasies,” she said.
Coincidentally, in Yee’s 10 days in OC, Dengue Fever was playing in Long Beach. The Cambodian Music Festival was happening in Anaheim. The annual Cambodia Town fundraiser was going on. Yee attended all these events, and was delighted by how rich and vibrant the
Cambodian American community was. The confluence of events was undeniable, she said. The result? “Cambodian Rock Band.”“Cambodian Rock Band” is essentially a father-daughter story about two people trying to desperately connect to each other. Set in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it toggles back and forth through 1970s Cambodia and right now in the United States. It’s about trying to figure out how stories get passed down to the next generation, even as the older generation is grappling with that traumaIt’s,
But it’s also about art — the creation and the survival of art. “Several people hid records and basically risked their lives for music,” Yee said. “Why would they do this? Why do we need art? If Khmer Rouge had their way this music would’ve never survived.”
The writing process was different for Yee, a San Francisco native and the 2018/2019 Hodder fellow at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. “I’m a playwright first, and have never worked on a musical piece before,” she admitted. She knew she was going to use some of her favorite Dengue Fever songs in the story, but she also realized that the music had to be performed live if she wanted to honor the musicians of the period.
“We had to put real live bodies on stage, play the music live and connect to the audience in a way that these musicians once did — to show audiences how great that loss is,” she said. It would have been a disservice to the musicians of that time to not acknowledge the joy and artistry and spirit that permeated the music scene in 1960s and 1970s Cambodia, she added.
Luckily, she was able to cast a cohort of Asian-American actors were not only talented thespians, but musicians too.
Joe Ngo, who plays the character Chum in the play, is Cambodian-American. His family survived Pol Pot’s regime and came to the United States as refugees. Growing up, the music of the play floated around the background of Ngo’s childhood. “I didn’t particularly had a love relationship with it, but ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ pushed me to think about where it came from.” It also allowed him to connect better with his parents. “Before this play, I didn’t understand what it was like to be in Cambodia at that time … for me it always felt like the past was all sepia-toned.”
Then he started bringing songs home to his parents. “I brought my mom Dengue Fever’s cover of “I’m Sixteen,” and she lit up! She said it was one of her favorite songs. I could see the youth in her, and it gave me more color about the landscape of her past. The more songs I brought to my parents, the more we would connect. It was an amazing experience. Despite how positive, grateful and generous my parents are, I have to remind myself that they survived the Khmer Rouge.”
Apart from acting, Ngo plays guitar and other instruments in the play. That brought another layer of emotional connection. “There were parts that I read that brought tears to my eyes, where I could see myself and my father. It resonates fully, so clearly, in my body and in my heart. It’s too hard to hide how I feel about Cambodia and my family in this play.”
Brooke Ishibashi, who portrays Neary and Sothea in the play, grew up in Orange. Her parents — like the character she portrays — were in a band in the 1970s and her dad was also a concert promoter. Mary Kageyama Nomura, her grandmother, was called “The Songbird of Manzanar” during her time interned at that camp during World War II. So there are legacies within legacies of music for Ishibashi, and various parallels between her character and her parents.
“Being in this play was bittersweet, because I know that there was this whole entire bracket of culture wiped away. And yet, it’s in America that all of this is born again,” Ishibashi said.
Beyond the history of Cambodia being presented at a mainstream venue, Ishibashi is also enthused about the many more platforms available for Asian Americans all over the country. “We’re in the right time at the right place,” she said. “I think it’s the best time to be an Asian American artist now. The community is ready and claiming their time in the sun. And people are ready and hungry for it. We have to tell our stories our way, and it’s different from what people are used to.”
Yee met Dengue Fever as she was began writing the play. The band also guided the music within the production. Senon Williams, bassist for Dengue Fever, says the collaboration was amazing. “They’re actors first and musicians second, so we taught them the parts and feeling of the music,” he said. “It was like working in a university, except every student was an A+ student,” he says.
The continuum of inspiration meant a great deal to the band. “[When art] comes from an honest place, it brings people humanity. It’s the power that we have as artists,” he said. Williams is excited about seeing the final result live. “I’ll all be shits and grins at the end of the play, I’m sure,” he said. “The story was so well crafted. Even though I love performing, it will be fun to watch and be a spectator for once. No pressure!”
After all, music is a great equalizer, Yee says. “Even if you don’t know anything about Cambodian history, you hear those songs and you immediately with what the story is.”
She adds, “This play opens up an audience to people who may seem very different from themselves, but after spending an evening with them, you will have a greater curiosity about all these stories on the margins you’ve never heard of. Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population in the country … many were born in Long Beach as a result of bombing Cambodia. It’s important that we understand how that came to be.”
Cambodian Rock Band, South Coast Repertory, 600 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787, March 4-25. Tickets start at $23 and are available at www.scr.org.