Cambodian Rock Band, Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, DC


Abraham Kim, Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Jane Lui, and Tim Liu in Cambodian Rock Band. Photo by Margot Schulman.

If confronted with a world map with the countries’ outlines but no captions, I daresay the number of Americans who could correctly locate Cambodia would be miniscule. And even those who might locate it (especially those born after about 1968) probably have little idea what happened there or why it mattered then – and matters now.

Cambodian Rock Band may well be the most unexpected and distinctive title in dramatic literature. But it is a perfect title for Lauren Yee’s challenging and thought-provoking work, now on stage in the Kreeger Theatre space at Arena Stage.

Joe Ngo, Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, and Tim Liu in Cambodian Rock Band. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A multi-talented cast of six (all but two of whom play multiple roles) takes us back to the early 1970s. We learn that Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has a long-standing, thriving, vibrant music scene viewed as “the Detroit of Southeast Asia.” Our first glimpse of five band members shows them (two guitarists, a drummer, a keyboard player, and a singer) performing songs in Khmer (the official language of Cambodia). Some of the songs are authentic from Cambodian bands of the 1970s, supplemented by songs by the contemporary Cambodian group Dengue Fever. Asian in origin, the songs are often tinged by Western influences. The performers are wearing clothes that transcend place but would be suitable in any “rock” venue, with lighting effects to match. (Costumes are designed by Linda Cho and lighting by David Weiner.)

We move back and forth in time as the story unfolds. In 2008, a man who escaped Cambodia years earlier (and who now presents as a stereotypical “ugly” American tourist with camera and fanny pack) has returned to Phnom Penh to retrieve his daughter, a 26-year-old who is working to expose the war crimes of the man who oversaw tortures and executions at the notorious Security Prison Camp-21 (S-21). Their father/daughter banter rings true, the father still viewing his now-adult daughter as a child who needs to be taken care of (insisting that she leave her current hotel for the Sheraton across the street, which will be much nicer).

Brooke Ishibashi and Joe Ngo as daughter and father in Cambodian Rock Band at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In part, we are guided in these shifts of time and place by a mysterious character who appears to be rather charming and witty, until we find out who he really is. He continues in the same vein, but once we know his identity there is a “bite” to his attempts at humor.

We go back in time to 1975 and see the rock band in its element, rehearsing. One of the band members, Chum, is anxious to get a good recording of the number. We learn that he and his family are planning to leave Cambodia for Paris, a trip that has been delayed so that he and the band can celebrate the Cambodian New Year in April. There is a little talk of politics and the existence of the notorious Khmer Rouge (KR), rebels against the Cambodian government who were being supported by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, among others, but the band members show little concern. After all, the Americans are still in Phnom Penh, and there’s no way the Americans would leave, right?

Wrong. The Americans evacuated Phnom Penh and, a few days later, Phnom Penh was under the control of the KR. Borrowing the ideals of the Chinese Communist “cultural revolution,” it is now a “crime” to be an intellectual or a member of the educated elite. Suddenly there is no more music in Cambodia. None. As the play’s first act ends, the flag of the KR fills the Kreeger Theatre stage.

The second act lets us know what happened next. Set mostly in the S-21 (also referred to as the Cambodian Auschwitz), we see the inhumane, torturous treatment of the prisoners, focusing on one of the band members (Chum). When questioned, he claims to be a banana seller, but his soft hands imply otherwise, along with other tell-tale signs that he is an “intellectual.” That is his crime. (Note: The site of S-21 is now open to the public as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.)

What we see on stage is a microcosm of what happened in Cambodia. Between 1975 and 1979, the KR exterminated approximately two million of their fellow Cambodians during their civil war, nearly 25% of its population. (The award-winning 1984 film “The Killing Fields” also tells the story of Cambodian genocide.)  A program note tells us that approximately 90% of the country’s musicians were among the victims.

It is a difficult play to watch, even more so because it is based in horrifying fact, but the carefully-crafted characters and the committed, authentic performances keep the audience involved. Director Chay Yew keeps things focused and crisp. Fight direction by Aldo Uribe is realistic and intense. The set design by Takeshi Kata is inventive and minimalist at times.

As mentioned earlier, the cast of six is multi-talented. Four play musical instruments (expertly!), two more sing, three are involved in complex stage violence, and I believe that all have dialogue and/or sing in Khmer.  That they are able to return to their “band positions” for a rocking conclusion is amazing evidence of the resilience of the cast.

Brooke Ishibashi is a sensual vocalist in the band and sympathetic as the daughter who learns more about her father over the course of the play than she could have anticipated. Tim Liu’s characters range from a somewhat goofy boyfriend to a sadistic guard. He even manages to be almost sympathetic in that role. Abraham Kim doubles as the band’s relatable drummer and as a journalist. In addition to playing a mean keyboard (and a few other instruments), Jane Lui also appears as a prison guard, while also acting as music supervisor and co-musical director (with Matt MacNeely).

Francis Jue as Duch in Cambodian Rock Band at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

But the central performances, the protagonist and antagonist of the play, are Joe Ngo as Chum and Francis Jue as Duch. Ngo is charmingly and clumsily humorous as the father returning to Cambodia and just as affecting when his character is imprisoned and tortured. There is an earnestness and almost innocence about him as a prisoner. Jue starts out as a rather suave and charming “host” for the evening, but soon comes to personify evil, relishing his importance and knowing just how well he does his job.

Theatre transports us to other locations and other times, which often proves that between “here and now” and “then and there” are more similarities than differences. Like two of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent productions I have written about dealing with atrocities, The Jungle and Here There Are Blueberries, Cambodian Rock Band deserves to be seen by a wide audience, especially the 535 people who work on Capitol Hill.


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