Thursday, November 21, 2019

“Cambodian Rock Band” Brings Home The Horrors Of War And The Endurance Of Family.


6 million executed. 3 million executed. I could go on but why, genocide is genocide and no amount of numbers can change what was. These numbers represent just some of the total deaths of Jews under Hitler in Germany and elsewhere, and the Cambodians in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1945 and the dictatorship of Pol Pot.

Playing out on different fields, Jews in Germany before they were rounded up participated in every day life as merchants, musicians, teachers, students, parents…the usual stuff.   Such were the activities of the Cambodians in their country with one exception; they were celebrated by most for their music. Before the invasion of the Khmer Rouge all arts including intellectuals, writers and artists were part of the scenery as usual. 

All that changed on a dime.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot’s Regime came swooping in arresting citizens for crimes against the government.  Music was barred and all roads out were shuttered. Western influenced rock music or the Cambodian Rock scene was all but hijacked, the musicians were imprisoned in one form or another and that was the night the music died.

For better or worse the US was in Cambodia from 1970-75 with forces and money to boost and give assistance to the Cambodian Government of Prince Sihanouk to ‘promote human rights and foster economic development among others things but mainly to keep the Khmer Rough on the straight and narrow.

For a short time some modernity returned to the country ushering in the era of rock and roll and the musical influences of other outside nation especially western. As we’ve seen recently and in past experiences, we left that country high and dry with a void for a hostage takeover. Thousands were thrown into Cell S 21 where, over the next four years three million Cambodians were exterminated. Eight of those held in S 21managed to leave, somehow. One unidentified was believed to be still out there.

UCSD graduate Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” finally made its way to the La Jolla Playhouse. Yee is a graduate of  UC San Diego’s MFA Playwright Program.  After listening the music  of  'Dengue Fever' a Los Angeles based band she heard playing at the Adams Street Fair she did some research, fell in love with the music  and was inspired to write her story.  

Under director Chay Ye's watchful eyes, a multitalented cast, and in conjunction with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and co- produced with Portland Center Stage at the Armory, this is one play you won’t want to miss. Her piece will be playing at The Playhouse through December 15th. 

Yee's story zeros in on that slice of life in her ancestral history and juxtaposed on a father daughter story that that is poignant yet filled with pathos, tragedy, a bit of silliness and mostly love. It’s sheer brilliance.

The story picks up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia thirty years after the invasion of the Khmer Rouge and as it unfolds it travels back and forth in time between then and now.

Yee’s ‘Band’ story is a father daughter revelation, about not knowing ‘what daddy did in the war’ thirty years earlier and the music that drove him to stay in his native homeland beyond crisis mode. It’s a story about resilience, love, surviving and the power of music. It’s all that and more.
Cambodian Rock Band
Following a high- energy concert with the talented musicians in the band our M.C. Dutch (Diasuke Tsuji) hops up on stage and introduces himself to us and rather takes over some of the story. As he charms in a diabolical way, we will later understand the why of his being.

Neary (Brooke Ishibashi) a Cambodian American, born and raised in the states is an American lawyer. She is in Cambodia working for the UN uncovering facts about the killings in Cell S 21. On this day she was to hold a news conference describing the horrors about the exterminations that happened in S 21. Eight of the prisoners escaped. She thinks she has located the names of seven. She is now on the trail of the eighth. 

Much to her chagrin, her father Chum (Joe Ngo), who, thirty years ago, was the leader of the Cyclos the band he and his friends Rom (Abraham Kim), Ted (Moses Villarama) and Pou (Jane Lui) founded, is in Phnom Penh and demanding his daughter come home to Massachusetts with him, forgo her news conference and forget about the entire matter.

When she tells him of her findings and how much research she has done to bring the story forward and she suspects her father was the eighth to have escaped, he challenges her to spend one night in the cell alone and then tell him what she thinks and why he has chosen to leave the past where it belongs.
Brooke Isibashi, Joe Ngo, Jane Lui and Moses Villarama
Six characters take on multiple roles as musicians/ prisoners/ friends/ and torturers. All are band members who perform in the ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ performing about 13 songs from the popular Rock Group ‘Dengue Fever’. Along the way they transform into two or more other characters helping to ferret out the story filling in the time frames from the beginnings of a relatively free society to a dictatorship where no one was safe.
Cast of Cambodian Rock Band
Under Matthew MacNelly’s keen musical direction and David Weiner’s psychedelic lighting, Sara Ryung Clement’s mix and match early 60’sjumpsuits to bell bottom’s to present day costumes, no stone is left unturned including a slideshow of faces of some of those murdered flash before us. It’s as heartbreaking as visiting any one of a number of Holocaust Museums.

When we first meet Neary’s dad, Chum (Joe Ngo) he comes off as a nerdy caricature of himself. Yet as stereotypical as he is he manages our attention as a loving caring dad who later morphs into a vibrant and brilliant musician. After the takeover he was taken prisoner; beaten and abused by Duch and held in S 21 Scenes from his time as a prisoner that he recalls in flashback in horrific detail will make your blood boil and the bile stick in your gut. 

As with so many of our Vietnamese heroes we learned of in playwright Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone”, Nguyen, a first generation Vietnamese, he writes about his Vietnamese parents and in particular his father, a helicopter pilot during the war who was trained in the states, and his heroic rescues during the evacuation of Vietnam when Saigon fell to the North. He refused to discuss the war with his grown son. So it was with Chum.


Daisuke Tsuji’s Dutch is the charming M. C. and former math instructor who took pleasure as the Hitler like S 21 Commandant. Joe Ngo is all but perfect as he pivots back and forth as dad and young musician. All are on board as musicians singing and playing their hearts out as well as characters in the play within the play.  
Daisuke Tsuji and Moses Villarama 
As one who is not that familiar with the music, has never been impressed with the whole psychedelic scene, had never heard of Cambodian Rock, I’m now a believer. Yee’s play will move you beyond the music, beyond the high- energy performances of the band to a place of forgiveness, enduring and non-judgmental parental love and redemption.     

The sheer velocity of the two-hour plus production had me anxious to get home ASAP and doing some homework on this slice of history I was not familiar with. I wondered why I didn’t know this history (although “The Killing Fields” did come up) and questioned how many others are my same place?

It matters not who tells the stories, it’s important that they be told in the first person. Hats off to Yee and her impressive and explosive “Cambodian Rock Band” that is expected to move to the off-Broadway stage of the Signature Theatre when this run ends.

 Run don’t walk to get tickets. You won’t regret it.

Two thumbs up!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Dec. 15th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858-550-1010
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UC Campus
Ticket Prices: Starting at $25.00
Web: lajollaplayhouse.com
Venue: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre
Photo: Jim Carmody

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