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“Cambodian Rock Band” brings mystery, history, and electrifying rock to the stage

Lauren Yee’s prize-winning play makes its way to Pittsburgh

Photo: Liz Lauren/Victory Gardens Theater

It’s the middle of the 20th century and music in Cambodia is changing. Genres start to collapse and music from multiple continents trickles then pours into the country. International trade brings French pop music, Latin jazz, and early American rock ‘n roll in the 1950s. Psychedelic sounds and surf rock arrive in the 60s. U.S. radio stations broadcasting to troops in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War disseminate soul, funk, and garage rock. All these musics fuse with traditional Cambodian vocal techniques like “ghost voice” singing to form a vibrant, prolific music scene centered in the city of Phnom Penh. Sinn Sisamouth, “the king of Khmer music,” writes over 1,000 songs. Music and culture thrive, morph, and develop until the seven-year Cambodian Civil War results in the tyrannical Khmer Rouge taking power in 1975. The regime orders two million Cambodians, including most musicians, artists, and intellectuals — those who could stir resistance — into labor camps and prison farms. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, enact an isolationist, anti-intellectual, nationalist goal to return Cambodia to an agrarian socialist republic. It is a utopian ideal aimed at purification. Two million Cambodians are killed. Many physical remnants of culture like records and master tapes are destroyed.

Lauren Yee’s play Cambodian Rock Band analyzes this time period through the lens of family. Set to live versions of songs by psychedelic surf rockers Dengue Fever, Yee’s play investigates heritage, justice, and music as a tool for joy and defiance against tyranny. It’s part rock concert, part mystery, part comedy, and it’s winning awards for its unique and powerful storytelling.

The story involves Neary (Aja Wiltshire) and her father Chum (Greg Watanabe), a survivor of the Khmer Rouge period. America gave Chum a new start and provided Neary with an existence removed from past horrors, but Neary’s desire to reconnect with her family’s history sees her traveling to Cambodia. She works for an NGO and is seeking justice for crimes committed by a member of the Khmer Rouge. Chum left Cambodia 30 years earlier, and his story is the foundation for the multiple timelines that occur in the play, one set in 2008 and a few set in the 1970s.

Aja Wiltshire, who plays Neary and is also the singer in the band, can relate to the desire to reconnect with family heritage.

“I am first generation born American,” says Wiltshire. “My mom was born in the Philippines to a very poor family. While my family didn’t deal with the atrocities of genocide, my grandmother left the Philippines in search of a better life. And when my mom got here, she was made fun of as a child for having an accent. So, she went home one day and was like, ‘no more Tagalog, I don’t want to eat the food, I want to be as American as possible.’ So, for me, there’s a direct correlation between not knowing anything about where I come from and wanting to be connected to that history.”

The actors act but they also make up the band. And as anyone who is in a band will tell you, band chemistry can be tricky, especially if you are constructing a band within the context of a play.

“Our cast is people who want to be doing this work, who love theater, who love music, and want to be telling this story. So, you’re with good people from day one,” says Wiltshire.

Rehearsals for the play started in March 2019, but the actors met as a band the previous January.

“We rehearsed for five days to learn the music but also to get to know each other, because it’s hard to get the dynamic of being a band if you’re five strangers. But through the rehearsal process and getting to know each other and having respect for each other as artists, we really gelled together.”

The singers worked with the Cambodian Heritage Museum in Chicago to learn pronunciations and get tips on singing in Khmer, the predominant language in Cambodia. The band performs a few classic Cambodian rock tunes, but focuses on the music of Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles band that is one of the inspirations for the play. Dengue Fever formed in 2001 with shared reverence for 60s and 70s Cambodian music. The band started casually, but are now somewhat of an institution, bringing communities together through music.

When the cast performed the play in Chicago, they had the experience of meeting different generations of Cambodians.

“It’s really an honor to get to tell a story that is so relevant to people,” says Wiltshire. “We’ve gotten to hear the experiences of my generation, of young Cambodian American people who don’t really know that much [about that time period] because their parents and grandparents didn’t talk about it.”

Wiltshire says that survivors got up on stage to speak about why they kept quiet about their experiences, and one woman brought her two young children to a performance, commenting that, “she didn’t know if her kids would ever get to see anything like this or hear the music of their people again.”

In dealing with such heavy material, Yee infuses the play with a healthy amount of humor. “Lauren Yee uses humor in such a way that it allows the audience to access truth in a deeper way,” says Wiltshire. “Because you laugh at something and realize, ‘that’s not ok’ or ‘that’s interesting that I laughed at that.’ Having comedy allows the audience to let down a wall. We’ll all have fun, but you also hit them with the hard stuff.”

“One of the most beautiful things about this play is that it doesn’t matter what your heritage is, because at the base of it, the play is about a father and a daughter. It’s about a family. And it’s about exploring history and becoming closer [to one another] and overcoming obstacles that [prevent that closeness]. For me, art is about showcasing humanity, especially through something like a genocide and how we persevere always.”

Cambodian Rock Band runs from September 14 through October 6, 2019 at City Theatre. Click here for ticket information.

Cambodian Rock Band is directed by Marti Lyons, music directed by Matt MacNelly, and fight directed by Matt Hawkins. The cast includes Eileen Doan, Albert Park, Christopher Thomas Pow, Peter Sipla, Greg Watanabe, and Aja Wiltshire. The production team includes Yu Shibagaki (scenic design), Keith Parham (lighting design), Izumi Inaba (costume design), Mikhail Fiksel (sound design), and Patti Kelly is Production Stage Manager.




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