SEE IT: A resonant “Cambodian Rock Band” strikes the right chords

UnProfessional Opinion
6 min readJul 30, 2023


Photo by Margot Schulman.

I’ve been waiting to write this review for a very long time.

In 2019, I saw the extraordinary Victory Garden’s production of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, directed by DC favorite Marti Lyons (Studio Theatre’s John Proctor is the Villain). I was mesmerized and deeply moved, and it quickly became one of the best plays I have ever seen. When the 2020 New York premiere at Signature Theatre was announced, I was hungry to see it. However, the pandemic interrupted those plans.

Fast forward, I was beyond ecstatic to learn our very own Arena Stage would be bringing the New York production to DC in the spring of 2022! However, the pandemic once more interrupted those plans.

But here we are at last. DC can now experience the beauty of this play that I’ve held close to my heart for all these years.

“Whoever tells the story tells the truth.”

Truth is a precious, rare, and powerful thing. It can take many forms, be manipulated, and can be as beneficial as it is dangerous. For one man, telling his story and revealing his truth poses huge consequences — on his relationship with his daughter and on history itself — so he keeps it hidden and safe, allowing others to control the narrative of the truth.

In Cambodian Rock Band, Lauren Yee has constructed a multi-faceted theatrical masterpiece. It is as entertaining as it is educational; as hilarious as it is profoundly moving; as particular as it is universal. It is an astonishing story of survival, love, identity, and connection. While lacking in some areas and soaring in others, Arena Stage’s presentation of the Signature Theatre production strikes all the right chords, delivering an all-encompassing theatrical experience.

Let’s set the scene: In 2008, the trial for Cambodian war criminal Comrade Duch (Francis Jue) is set to begin. Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) and her colleague/lover Ted (Tim Liu) are preparing for the prosecution and investigating a possible 8th survivor of the Duch-led S-21 prison, where almost 20,000 Cambodians were tortured and murdered. Out of the blue, Neary’s father Chum (Joe Ngo) arrives in Phnom Pehn in attempt to bring her back home to America and away from this case. A minor slip of the tongue turns into a seismic revelation — Neary’s father is the 8th survivor. Chum is cornered with a difficult choice to make: either keep the truth of his past hidden or reveal it now. In his eyes, both carry the risk of losing his daughter.

Brooke Ishibashi (Neary) and Joe Ngo (Chum). Photo by Margot Schulman.

I urge DC audiences to experience the work of Lauren Yee, last seen at Round House with The Great Leap and soon to be at Signature Theatre with King of the Yees. Her works are brimming with humor, heart, and theatricality, leaving you deeply satisfied and grateful to have experienced. In Cambodian Rock Band, Yee tackles a period of horrific genocide and builds a complex story where humor, tragedy, and song can all exist. After the show, my friend texted me, “I’m like, how was it so genuinely funny and about genocide?” That is due to Yee’s mastery of dramatic balance — without the light moments, the heavy moments won’t have their impact (and vice versa). Either way, I had tears in my eyes during my standing ovation.

As you can guess, Cambodian Rock Band is a play with music. It is an excellent lens from which to explore this dark part of history. (“Ninety percent of musicians, dancers and artists were wiped out of existence” during the reign of dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge). While a great compliment to the historical narrative, the songs (by Dengue Fever) do present a directorial challenge of how best to integrate them into the production. In my UnProfessional Opinion, although the songs were performed wonderfully, they were poorly integrated into the production’s storytelling. If director Chay Yew (and scenic designer Takeshi Kata) could have found a better, more stylized way to have the songs and the band itself flow in and out, it would not have felt so disjointed.

Photo by Margot Schulman.

For the most part, I found Chay Yew’s direction to be quite successful. The play and the production’s strongest point is the second act, and Yew shaped the moments beautifully. It was raw, devastating, and compelling. He focused on the heart of the story and sustained the intensity. However, act one could have been more refined. Yew did create a strong contrast with the levity of act one, but at times it was a bit too heavy handed. Within all of the jokes and silly scenarios is a high stakes situation, and that undercurrent has power that we do not want to lose.

The design elements were superb, particularly Linda Cho’s costumes, David Weiner’s lighting, and the sound by Mikhail Fiksel and Megumi Katayama. As with the direction, I wish Takeshi Kata’s scenic design had a bit more restraint. The excessive street and business signage was a cluttered visual that did not add much to the storytelling. However, the brief glimpse of trees outside of the prison was a nice touch, perhaps symbolizing the hope for life beyond such a dark place.

Much of the production’s resonating impact is due to the impressive talents of Joe Ngo and Francis Jue. As Chum, Ngo bares his soul on Arena’s stage, sharing every talent in his arsenal. Chum is a complexly challenging role, spanning years, physical and emotional states, and performance styles, all of which Ngo triumphs. I giggled at all his corny jokes and almost-correct English expressions (“No shit, Dr. Watson”), and wept at his desperation and unflinching hopefulness during his captivity. The bold truthfulness of his performance proved this production was worth the wait. As Duch, “Pol Pot’s chief torturer”, Francis Jue was impressively versatile, deftly managing to be goofily charismatic and frighteningly intimidating at any moment. Jue found stunning nuance within a horrific character, keeping us mesmerized as we grew to fear and hate him.

Francis Jue (Duch). Photo by Margot Schulman.

I commend Lauren Yee for how she developed Duch’s character. Some of my colleagues criticized the characterization, comparing it to a Holocaust play that humanizes Hitler. And I see that — however, I do not take issue with humanizing the individual. In some ways, I find it essential. The awful people of history were real people, people you might have known. Stories tend to present villains as awful, unimaginable, unrelatable people, not former math teachers that enjoy music, like Duch was. (Or in Here There Are Blueberries, where the commander of Auschwitz, Friedich Höcker, used to be an accountant). Showcasing a historical figure’s complexity does not diminish our capacity for understanding their cruelty.

This play, these characters, and these actors all take enormous risks in telling their stories and sharing their truths, culminating in a powerful and fulfilling tale of love and perseverance. Yee has created a work of theatrical alchemy, combining comedy, tragedy, music, and the horrors of history into a highly-sophisticated, enriching story that all should witness. It is my UnProfessional Opinion that you SEE Cambodian Rock Band.

Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee

Music by Dengue Fever

Directed by Chay Yew

A Signature Theatre production, presented by Arena Stage

July 19 — August 27, 2023

More information here



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