By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Southside-based City Theatre Company is kicking off its 45th season with one of the most-anticipated new works in American Theater, Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band.”
The genre-bending musical drama won the Steinberg American Theater Critics New Play Award, an award honoring outstanding new plays that debut outside New York City.
Cambodian Rock Band” will run at Pittsburgh City Theatre in the Southside from September 14 to October 6. For more information and tickets, visit citytheatre.culturaldistrict.org.
Coming off its April 2019 inaugural production at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, the play is making its East Coast debut at City Theatre. Playwright Lauren Yee, director Marti Lyons, and artistic director at City Theatre, Marc Masterson all sat down with Clare Drobot, director of new play development at City Theatre, for their new podcast “City Speaks,” discussing “Cambodian Rock Band” and the process of putting the production together.
“‘Cambodian Rock Band’ is about deep family secrets coming to light, and that there is catharsis and healing and the ability to move on once those things are unearthed,” said Yee.
“It’s really a father-daughter story about a daughter who goes back to discover her heritage, and a father who doesn’t want her to discover certain things about her heritage,” said Masterson.
“Cambodian Rock Band” tells the story of a Cambodian-American woman who travels back to Cambodia thirty years after her father fled the country, trying to better understand her family background. There, she discovers the subculture of Cambodian rock music and how that subculture intertwines with the atrocities in Cambodia’s recent past.
The play is fundamentally rooted in Cambodian history, particularly the reign of the Khmer Rouge that began in 1975. The government of Pol Pot was responsible for killing nearly 90 percent of all musicians in the country, believing them, as well as other artists and intellectuals, to be enemies of the state. Despite this concerted attempt to erase part of Cambodian culture, the music of that era survived and escaped the country, influencing musicians across the world in the process.
One group influenced by Vietnam-era Cambodian music is the American band Dengue Fever, who composed half of the music performed in “Cambodian Rock Band.” Dengue Fever was part of Lauren Yee’s initial inspiration to write the play, having seen them perform in Long Beach in 2015.
“As soon as I heard Dengue play, it was just this amazing explosion of joy and power and fun,” Yee said. “You can’t help but dance and move.”
Yee wanted to emphasize the power and persistence of music in the story, and as a result, all of the actors in the show also perform music live. In addition to the works of Dengue Fever, “Cambodian Rock Band” features classic Cambodian songs of that era, including songs by Ros Serey Sothea, Pan Ron, and Sinn Sisamouth. All of these artists fell victim to the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Genocide.
Despite the dark historical undertones of the show, Yee felt it imperative to bring humor and lightness to the show as well, attempting to capture the joyous culture of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.
“When I say the word ‘genocide’ or ‘the Communists,’ you’re almost seeing things in a sepia tone, everything becomes very educational, very serious,” Yee said. “I think that just ignores the incredible spirit of these musicians…who had very full, rich technicolor lives before the music ended in ‘75.”
“It’s a dark story, the history of Cambodia is a dark story, but it’s told with an enormous sense of humor with a huge heart to it,” said Masterson.
It is this spirit and heart that are so key to the success of “Cambodian Rock Band,” as it is ultimately a show about triumph over trauma and survival, both the survival of people and ideas.
“Lauren is so deft about taking us into the darkest parts of humanity, but there’s also always a redemption, for me, in the music,” said director Marti Lyons. “The idea that there was a dictatorship in this culture that tried to eradicate music and the music survives is so fundamentally hopeful and rebellious and beautiful.”
Check out Ted Hoover’s Review of Cambodia Rock Band Monday at www.pittsburghcurrent.com