I attended “Cambodian Rock Band” at ACT’s Falls Theater (a space I had never visited before, including the super-cool historic bank vault downstairs from the lobby!) on opening night of the highly anticipated run. My colleague — a fellow Asian-American theater artist — and I had just filled up on roast duck from Kau Kau BBQ in Chinatown International District and were met by many of our mutual Asian and Asian American friends and mentors in the lobby of ACT. There were hugs, dances of excitement and lots of pride in our hearts. In the house of the theater, friends waved and called to each other from across sections. I lost count of how many familiar faces I saw.
After some opening statements celebrating the 11th co-production between ACT and the 5th Avenue Theatre, The Cyclos arrived for an opening set. Stationed on a platform with their amps, drum kit, keyboard and a variety of handheld percussion, the upbeat song “Jeas Cyclo” got hearts pumping before the story even began.
Neary (Brooke Ishibashi), a young Khmer American, is in Cambodia working for a non-governmental organization pursuing the prosecution of Comrade Duch, who oversaw the execution of at least 15,000 Khmer in Security Prison 21 (S-21) during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Duch was the first member of the Khmer Rouge who was arrested and charged with crimes against humanity.
While she’s in the country, Neary’s Khmer dad, Chum (Joe Ngo), returns to Cambodia for the first time in 30 years to surprise his daughter with a visit. As she catches him up on her work, Neary makes the shocking discovery of her father’s imprisonment at S-21, making him the elusive eighth survivor of the camp that Neary had been struggling to track down. Whereas at first I assumed that the play would be focused on Neary’s fraught connection to her Khmer heritage, at this point, “Cambodian Rock Band’’ shifts to the story of Chum’s musical youth, his experience at S-21 and his horrifying escape.
On the surface, Chum doesn’t appear to be a traumatized survivor. However, the echoes of genocide come through in his worldviews, veiled by enthusiastic nosiness that had Asian audience members groaning in recognition of their own parents. Despite being Khmer himself, Chum claims to distrust Khmer, as well as Thai people. He seeks to get Neary out of Cambodia as soon as possible and firmly disapproves of her Thai boyfriend. Ngo portrays the dramatic shifts in Chum’s personality with stunning precision. The audience is transported back to just a day before the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, and in this time, Chum is vibrant, creative and stubborn, and he shares an incredibly deep love and trust with his three bandmates. Yet, half an hour later, he is battered and bruised, desperate for survival in the midst of betrayal and nearly certain doom in S-21.
Chum’s hypervigilance and naivete are contrasted by the cool, charismatic Duch (Phil Wong) — who tells much of this story directly to the audience. Duch, a math teacher-turned-Khmer Rouge, contrasts the frankly given explicit detail of his role in genocide through his direction of S-21 with a surprising moment of compassion: While interrogating Chum, Duch hands him a guitar, which keeps him alive for significantly longer than expected. However, it’s not until Chum takes control of his own story by confronting his internal ghost of Duch that he can admit to Neary his own guilt: by telling the story of his escape.
The truth of Chum’s youth told by his elder body to his daughter was such a captivating performance and staging that I remained uncharacteristically still, breath caught in my throat, until the story had concluded. Playwright Lauren Yee handles the blurred lines of innocence and guilt in wartime with skill: No atrocity is understated in vocabulary or description. In performance, the avoidance of veiled language or symbolic movement makes “Cambodian Rock Band” fast-paced and extremely intense. The fictionalized show honors history with enough truth to be an affirmation to those who live with generational trauma of the Cambodian Genocide, while simultaneously serving as a reminder to be watchful of the social patterns and attitudes surrounding genocide. Even the term “Cambodian Genocide” is challenged by “Cambodian Rock Band,” which instead calls the event the “Khmer Genocide.”
Much of the music played in “Cambodian Rock Band” was originally created by, you guessed it, a Khmer rock band: Dengue Fever, which I’ve been a fan of for a few years now. “Cambodian Rock Band” is truly a masterclass of music as a tool to express what words alone can’t do justice; songs tend to start up when a sentence trails off or a question is asked. Each band member shows love and fear in their solos, then as a group, they come together to call up a storm of resilience in songs like my favorites, “Cement Slippers” and “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula.” When I hear music, I can’t help but move, and the ending set of “Cambodian Rock Band” had me itching to get up and start to dance. Luckily, everyone in the room had just the same idea, and we were soon on our feet, ending an emotionally heavy show with a shout of courage, survival and hope.
The arrival of “Cambodian Rock Band” in Seattle is an incredible affirmation of the success of Asian and Asian American stories in theater. Seattle’s long history of Asian-American theater — spearheaded by Roger Tang and Pork-Filled Productions — remains strong today. Yun Theatre, Pratidhwani and Macha Theatre Works Distillery specifically focus on the region’s art, and then other groups like ArtsWest with “miku, and the gods” (in co-production with Pork-Filled) and Dacha Theatre’s “Sometimes the Rain, Sometimes the Sea” make a conscious choice to platform and uplift Asian and Asian American stories. Productions like “Cambodian Rock Band” — and the upcoming Pork-Filled show “Bloodletting” — deserve full houses and aisles full of dancing for focusing on Southeast Asian stories.
Oct. 7 was the Khmer Community Day event associated with the show, bringing a fuller cultural experience to the Falls Theater. There was food, music, dance and an opportunity for ticket holders to celebrate and learn about Khmer culture. Shows, events and art like this build a robust network of Asian and Asian American artistic solidarity that is necessary for the perpetuation of our work. “Cambodian Rock Band” demonstrates that we are visible for both our struggles and our triumphs.
For an enhanced show experience, listen to Anamaria Guerzon’s curated list of “Khmer Rock 101” in the “Inside the Musical” guide.
Read more of the Oct. 11-17, 2023 issue.