One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.”
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Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. With the Off Broadway production of “Cambodian Rock Band” now in performances at Signature Theater, Yee and director Chay Yew appeared on Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, to talk confronting history, rocking out, and why they think audiences have responded so enthusiastically to a show that Yee said her husband didn’t believe she would actually write.
That’s because she had the germ of an idea for the play back in 2011, but it took her a good four years to figure out how to write it. Yee said on Stagecraft that she had a lot of “bad ideas” about how to tell a story that looked at the Khmer Rouge genocide, and its survivors, through the lens of Cambodia’s musicians, some 90% of whom died during the genocide.
“My husband was like, ‘You’re never gonna write this play,’ ” Yee laughed, remembering unsuccessful drafts of the plays that involved two sisters dealing with the death of their mother, or a young woman whose father kidnaps her.
The moment of inspiration finally came when Yee decided to incorporate Cambodian surf rock, which she had discovered when she attended a concert by the Los Angeles-based band Dengue Fever.
“The way that music operates in the world [of the play] is that the story is about this band, so we should hear this band play,” the playwright explained. “We should fall in love with their music. But listening to individual songs is not going to be like, ‘Oh, I know more about the plot now,’ or ‘The characters are telling me narrative through song.’ Because half the songs are in Khmai. I think [the music] is about bringing that emotional quality to the piece. … You should hear it and know exactly why this music was so important.”
For Yew, part of the appeal of “Cambodian Rock Band” for audiences is the show’s compelling story of a father and daughter struggling to understand one another. “The idea that there’s this gulf, and with so much emigration and refugee issues that are in the country today, there is a heart to the play, an immediacy to understanding why immigrants behave very differently in this country,” he said. “Why people who come to this country as refugees bring their histories, and why they keep silent. And the result of that silence is impacted to their children.”
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