There are many questions that playwright Lauren Yee poses in her richly layered Cambodian Rock Band, but one central question remains dominant throughout the play: What would you do to survive? Will you do the unimaginable to ensure your family’s safety? What happens to your dreams, your life when the political climate in your country shifts?
In dramatizing this moral question, Lauren does what few American plays do and should do: she gave immediate voice to the voiceless, and visibility to the invisible living in this country. We rarely see the Cambodian American community on our stages, less so on TV or in the movies. By giving this community the center stage, this forgotten chapter of our collective American history of how they escaped from tyranny and found refuge on our shores comes to vivid life in Lauren’s new play.
With incredible theatrical deftness, brutal honesty, pure heart and wit, Cambodian Rock Band is also a unique dramaturgical hybrid of its own: fusing history, politics, rock concert, family drama fashioning into a potent work of art.
Lauren’s play also breathes life to the timely issues in our divided nation: immigration; race; the rights of refugees and emigres; the consequences of apathy when a country shifts under a brutal regime; and the destruction of freedom of expression in the midst of political transitions and upheavals.
In the last weeks, Cambodian Rock Band felt more urgent to me than my last time with this play. With the increasing book bans in our country, I’m painfully reminded of the similar destruction of art and music in communist Cambodia – which is one of the first acts of despotism. And with the war in Ukraine raging in its second year, our play also gives us a harrowing insight into the lifelong trauma held by emigrant and refugee survivors.
Lauren’s Cambodian Rock Band has become a cautionary tale of the unchecked power and authoritarianism leading to the destruction of human and civil rights, torture and brutality, and genocide.
In Lauren’s astute eyes, one thing remains consistent throughout our often temperamental world: the constancy, the resilience and enduring power of art and artists.
Cambodian Rock Band celebrates the indomitable legacy of art and music; how artists capture our individual and national spirit and hopes; and the uncanny ability of art to inspire, to affirm our humanity, and to bring us together.
Brooke Ishibashi and Jane Lui in Cambodian Rock Band . Photo by Margot Schulman.