Theater must entertain and, if it passes that bar, it can do a whole lot more.
There is so much in Cambodian Rock Band that entertains and more: it delights, it side-eyes power, it explores the depths of human brutality and perseverance, it quite literally rocks!
The music, which merges vintage Cambodian rock numbers with songs written by the Cambodian American band Dengue Fever, is performed live by this dynamic company. If you aren’t already familiar with this music, I foresee a music streaming deep-dive in your future (just in time for the release of Dengue Fever’s new album).
History is brought to life with exquisite visual and aural design by our creative team. Duch, our narrator and antagonist, is so witty and charming that he tugs on our sympathies despite our knowledge of the many horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge.
And I’ve saved my favorite part for last: there is a humorous and deep parent/adult child relationship at the heart of this story. The music and history are all woven around Chum and his daughter Neary, as he tries to maintain his relationship with her while protecting her from the truth of his past. As I watch their scenes, I sit with these questions:
What do our parents hide from us and why? What details of their past do parents owe their children? Does trauma leak through generations even if it remains unspoken? Is there healing to be found in speaking of the past to our loved ones?
Weaving all these story elements together is no small feat, but Lauren Yee is one of our finest modern playwrights. She masterfully tucks humor and history together into a basket of music in a way that teaches us to better appreciate the whole lives our parents had before they became our parents.
Cambodian Rock Band is the type of storytelling I love to watch as an audience member: show me our history, but also give me the tools to process it. Our artists are doing just that—grappling with the past, daring to make jokes about it, and setting it to music.
Photo of Francis Jue (Duch) in Cambodian Rock Band by Margot Schulman.