Signature Theatre's 2020 production of Lauren Yee's play Cambodian Rock Band all started with a concert ticket purchased on a whim nearly a decade prior. Yee, who was a grad student at University of California San Diego at the time, decided to join some friends for an outdoor music festival. It was there that she first encountered the Cambodian psychedelic surf-rock stylings of Dengue Fever.
"I think we almost missed their set," Yee, who is currently a Residency 5 Playwright at Signature, recalls, "but as soon as I heard them play, I just fell in love with their sound. And it really opened me up to like, who is this band? What are their influences? It just sounded like something I hadn't really heard before. And that was the thing that started me down the path of creating Cambodian Rock Band."
Yee's love of Dengue Fever's music inspired years of research into Cambodian history, and more specifically, the generation of sixties and seventies Cambodian Rock musicians like "King of Khmer Music" Sinn Sisamouth and countless others, many of whom disappeared or were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Yee knew from the beginning that showcasing the music inspired by this era would be a cornerstone to the show's storytelling, but it wasn't until she started workshopping the piece with actors that it occurred to her to make it an actor-musician production.
"As I was beginning to create the show in the very early days, one of the people who was helping me workshop the play was Joe Ngo, who originated the lead role and became a huge part in the show's evolution. A lot of the history that's detailed in the show was history that his parents really lived through. But also, I realized that it was possible to have live music in the show when I realized he played electric guitar."
Existing in a space somewhere between jukebox musical and a play with music, Dengue Fever songs are woven throughout Cambodian Rock Band's multi-generational narrative. The show tells the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor named Chum (Joe Ngo) who returns to Cambodia after 30 years abroad, while his daughter Neary (Courtney Reed) prosecutes a notorious war criminal. Also featured in the Signature Theatre production were Francis Jue as Duch, Abraham Kim as Rom, Jane Lui as Pou, and Moses Villarama as Ted/Leng.
After the show's February 24 opening, like many other Off-Broadway productions, Cambodian Rock Band's New York City run was cut unexpectedly short in March of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shut down of performances spaces nationwide. This created an unusual emotional parallel that neither the show's cast or creative team could have predicted.
"The end of Act One ends with the band recording their album when the Khmer Rouge invades and the airports shut down and kind of the walls closing around them. And the week leading up to Broadway shutting down, [the cast] were recording the album for the show. I think they finished on Monday, and by Thursday people were on planes back home," recalls Yee. "I think there was a sense of, Are the airports going to shut down? Can we get out? A lot of them were not from New York. I think that sadness of that shock of 'everything I thought was stable is suddenly upended.' That's one way that the play feels different at this point in time."
Though the theatre shutdown would extended for far longer than most would have anticipated, the show's momentum refused to be diminished. Cambodian Rock Band's cast album was released in May of 2020, preserving the musical performances of the New York City cast, and providing longtime Dengue Fever fans with new arrangements of popular tunes like "Sni Bong" and "Uku."
Meanwhile, the show’s rich and deeply moving exploration of Asian immigrant and Asian American experiences, plus its celebration and centering of Asian artistry took on an even greater resonance in light of the #StopAsianHate movement and recent discussions about Asian representation in the theatre.
“I think part of an aspect of the anti-Asian violence we're seeing is people not being able to view other people as full human beings,” says Yee. “Seeing Asian American actors onstage, being leads of the story—being flawed, and sexy, and complicated, and dark—and going through that wide gamut of emotions and playing parts that ask a lot of them, is really exciting. And I think taps into that question of what does it mean to be able to be a full human being on stage?”
"I think the themes and story that Lauren is exploring in Cambodian Rock Band feel more relevant now than ever," Signature Theatre Artistic Director Paige Evans echoes. "I think that telling the story of an Asian American father and daughter grappling with their generational differences, and with the history in Cambodia, feels still very timely and very meaningful."
Theatrical institutions around the country seem to agree. Signature Theatre's production of Cambodian Rock Band not only bears the distinction of being one of Signature’s first productions of to tour nationally, but also is among the first touring productions to announced post-pandemic that is not already a major Broadway blockbuster. After nearly a year-and-a-half with no on-stage work, institutions around the country remained eager to present the show to their communities.
“It speaks very much to the play that the venues that were originally slated to take this tour [in 2020] were still so excited about the Signature’s production of Lauren's work, that they wanted it, and they just did not let go of it. They kept it in their pipeline,” says Victoria Lang of Broadway and Beyond Theatricals, who is partnering with Signature Theatre to produce the tour nationwide.
“So many theatres were backed up...they have 18 months-worth of shows and only 12 months to do them in. So, there was a lot of fallout––and this did not fall out.”
Though many of the show’s touring dates and locations are still to be officially announced, Yee is most excited for the show to play an upcoming run in the Greater Los Angeles area, where there’s a significant Cambodian-American community. “Joe [Ngo] has said that he's watched Cambodian Americans watch the show and say, ‘You know, the family represented isn't necessarily my story...but let me tell you what my story is.’ So, I think that it can also be a jumping point for provoking conversation. And I would love it if others saw it and they're like, ‘Ah, this makes me want to share my story.’"
"And I'd love people to fall in love with the music and ask questions about who these artists are and were. Like, who is Dengue Fever? Who was Sinn Sisamouth?" says Yee. "And just really, give those musicians their due."
"It's a very dynamic show," says Evans. "Every night that I was there, the audience leapt to its feet for that final song. And it was like being at a rock concert."
Cambodian Rock Band is set to kick off its tour as part of Berkeley Rep's 2021 season. More dates and official casting for the tour are soon to come.