“For me as an artist, the idea that music and art can be so powerful that a regime goes after you is a really startling idea.” — Lauren Yee, playwright of Cambodian Rock Band
Not even 40 years old, Lauren Yee has become a superstar in the theater world. Described as a “playwright on the verge” by the Los Angeles Times in 2018, Yee then became the second most-produced playwright in the United States in 2020 (American Theatre Magazine).
She is a playwright who manages to find deeply prophetic layers and nuance to every subject she shines a light on. And in Cambodian Rock Band it’s the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, and the impact of their genocide. Yee commented, “the genocide that Cambodia went through was not something that happened years and years ago. It’s something that happened as late as the end of ‘78, beginning of ‘79. And that’s something that is almost too close for comfort, like when we think about modern-day genocides and traumas that are being enacted all over today. That in a way we feel so far from. That they almost feel like they don’t exist.”
Artistically, Yee gravitates towards stories about families. “There is something that all of us go through when we meet our parents as adults. We think we know our parents, but how much do we really know them and what their lives were like before they had kids? [Cambodian Rock Band] is another way of exploring that story,” Yee said in an interview with LA Times.
Another theme that occurs in many of her pieces is ‘those forgotten by history whose stories haven’t been told.’ And that impetus doesn’t only live on the page and stage for Yee. In fact, in 2020 she led a major fundraising initiative called The CRB Challenge. She, and other members of the Cambodian Rock Band community, asked fans of the show to record themselves covering songs included in the play, or other songs by Dengue Fever / Cambodian artists, and to donate money to causes including the United Cambodian Community of Long Beach’s Cambodia Town Business Relief Fund and the Movement for Black Lives.
As noted in the Cambodian Rock Band program, Yee’s honors include the Doris Duke Artists Award, Whiting Award, Steinberg/ATCA Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, Horton Foote Prize, Kesselring Prize, Primus Prize, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton, and the #1 and #2 plays on the 2017 Kilroys List. She’s a Residency 5 playwright at Signature Theatre, New Dramatists member, Ma-Yi Writers Lab member, and Playwrights Realm alumni playwright. Current commissions include Arena Stage/Second Stage, Geffen Playhouse, South Coast Repertory. TV credits: Pachinko (Apple), Soundtrack (Netflix), Interior Chinatown (Hulu), Billions (Showtime), The Sterling Affairs (FX). She is currently developing pilots for Netflix and Apple. BA: Yale. MFA: UCSD.
It was also recently announced that she’ll be penning the book for the musical adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s iconic A Wrinkle in Time. Heather Christian will compose and write lyrics, and Lee Sunday Evans will direct.
Photograph of Lauren Yee by Beowulf Sheehan. Cambodian Rock Band Illustration by Owen Smith.