Mo Theater “Cambodian Rock Band” Fights for Cambodia’s Soul

“Music is the soul of Cambodia.”

This is one of the most touching lines in the work of the famous playwright Lauren Yee.Cambodian rock band. Ironically, too, this line was said by Kang Kiek Io, aka Duch (played by Eric Sharp), the cheeky narrator who revealed himself as a member of the Khmer Rouge, the political party responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population in the 1970s. Not only that, but Duch was the man who oversaw Tuol Sleng (or S-21), a prison in Phnom Penh where thousands of Cambodians were murdered.

Mo’s “Cambodian rock band”, which he co-produced and performed on Jungle Theatre, debuted last week, and runs through July 31. The show premiered in Southern California in 2018 and has become one of the most performed plays worldwide. the United States in the following years.

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In the play, Neri (played by Daniel Troyano in Jungle Theatre), a Cambodian American who claims to be a “disappointment embodied,” is on a search team trying to sue Duch, who has been found hiding near the Cambodia border for the past few decades. While collecting evidence in Cambodia 2008, Neri stumbled upon a photo of a previously unknown survivor of the S-21 prison, the first major breach of the case in decades. Meanwhile, Neri’s father, Chom (performed by Broadway youngster Greg Watanabe) surprises her in Cambodia and begs her to drop the case and go home, saying she’s wasting her time on the past. The show features flashbacks to Cham as the bassist of a gritty little rock band as a father and daughter grapple with Cham’s horrific experiences in Dutch prison.

Each cast member plays two characters, one of whom is a Cambodian rocker of the 1970s and the other a producer from the early 2000s. That makes the show a rock-hard hit—featuring tunes by LA Dengue Fever, among others, which combine 1960s and ’70s Cambodian rock with other styles. At the same time, it is a touching play on the reckoning of the past.

Non-Cambodian Americans may be familiar with the Cambodian genocide through the Oscar-winning film”killing fields. Cambodian rock band is a fresh take on this fraught period. After a bitter civil war, dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 and moved two million people out of the capital, forcing them to work in labor camps or farms. Music and art were banned. and other forms of freedom of expression – particularly anything considered Western – in an effort to return Cambodia to its pre-colonial agricultural roots.

The great soundtrack and powerful story are enjoyed by the audience due to the efforts of unsung heroes such as the fictional sidekick. “[The music and records] They are still alive because there are Cambodians who hid them, they remembered, and they wanted to keep them alive no matter what the communist regime did,” says Cody Kaur, the series’ dramatic actor. “An entire government could try to trample something, people and art would stay on Alive.”

This is a heavy story, and one that may seem incredibly personal to the thousands of Cambodians who have immigrated to Minnesota over the past 50 years. It also requires an exceptionally multi-talented staff. You need actors who can sing, play instruments, and perform songs in one of the most difficult languages ​​to learn. Khmer, Cambodia’s language, has 74 letters, and none of the cast members are native speakers.

The result on preview night, however, was a high-energy rock show punctuated by scenes that effortlessly blend humor and heaviness, featuring outstanding performances by the main cast members.


A “Cambodian rock band” breaks out, but it’s also the story of a man whose world has been shattered by genocide and the resulting intergenerational trauma.

It is not for the faint of heart. There are verbal and physical graphic depictions of the violence, causing an audience member to walk out at the preview I attended. To support theater-goers, the Jungle Theater has a quiet area and resources if you need to take a break from a show, and attendees 16 and up are recommended.

But it’s not all gloomy and gloomy. There are also fart jokes and sick guitar riffs. Justice in 1970s Cambodia is complex, particularly from the different perspectives of the victims versus their US-born children, and “Cambodian rock band” boldly embodies this complexity.

To start, the simple ensemble, complete with psychedelic lighting and decade-old clothing (yes, there are ’70s boots!), shows time jumping without distracting from the core of the story.

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Actor Eric Sharp starts the show off strong with his charming, disturbing portrayal of a math teacher turned war criminal. Think of Taika Waititi as Adolph Hitler in “JoJo Rabbit,” but make it Cambodian. Sharp enjoys the radio host’s voice, boundless energy, and instant comic timing, along with his character’s sinister role in Cambodia’s history. Loaded with Yi’s witty dialogue, his astonishing talent aims for the “just follow orders” mentality that some use to root out their involvement in mass atrocities under the rug.

In flashbacks to their characters on one of the bands, Watanabe’s high-profile scenes with Christopher Te Paw (playing Ted in 2008 and Ling in the 1970s) address the collapse of two young men’s dreams under a genocidal system that robs them of their youth. Watanabe and Bo are two of the strongest performers in the “Cambodian rock band”, effortlessly transporting audiences between past and present, performing some of the most intense scenes in an already dark show, and providing much-needed comedic relief when moving forward It’s time to play the bossy father Chom and Neri’s Canadian friend, respectively.

Watanabe, who performed alongside George Takei and Leah Salonga on Broadway, gently deals with Chum’s character’s harshest edges. It’s a feat to bridge the gap between a foolish father and a traumatized torture victim, while also rocking the bass guitar.

The intense emotional highs and lows of “Cambodian rock band” dominate the audience in every scene. The dialogue alone, alternating between joking between loved ones and exposing the horrific trauma of the past, would make for a compelling theatrical, but the music brings this show’s message home. Audiences will hear the songs of Dengue Fever and Bob Dylan, and Cambodian Americans will learn about Cambodian classics from Sinn Sisamouth (also known as Cambodian Elvis) and famous singer Ros Serey Sothea.

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I need to understand Khmer language to get into the show’s music. The cast’s brilliant work adds a layer of authenticity that makes this production so special. Like Neri, Danielle Troiano’s powerful vocals and expressive style also transcend the language barrier, making the audience captivated by shocking emotions.


For a show steeped in history and fun, how did the participants find the right balance?

The playwright, Lauren Yi, conducted extensive research, and director Lily Tung Krystal brought in cultural advisor Mongkol Teng and theater Cody Kaur to deepen the show’s authenticity for the Mu Theater audience.

Teng, a native of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was the primary dialect coach, helping the cast navigate the band’s performances and make minor changes to the script to better reflect Cambodian culture. Teng grew up listening to many songs on the show and got to know some of the show’s themes from his own experiences, particularly in the contradictory values ​​of Cambodian parents and their US-born children. “It reflects what it is like in Cambodian-American families,” says Teng.

Meanwhile, Kaur conducted research into Cambodia’s history, including by consulting his parents, to inform the actors’ relationship to the story. “My hope is that people will walk away from the show as they think about healing and helping others heal,” he says. “Most of the time, when culture or historical shock is talked about, I feel the general response is ‘never again,’ which of course is true, but survivors often aren’t dealt with or acknowledged much – which is why it has been so difficult, and still for some , For Khmer Refugees, Adaptation to America”.

Teng and Kaur, both Cambodian Americans, said they recognized parts of Cambodia he knew in the story.

For example, Core says that Buddhism, similar to Christianity in America, is deeply ingrained in the culture. While the Buddhist religion is not explicit in “Cambodian rock band”, it subtly influences the structure of the show and the motivations of some of the characters. Kaur says he immediately noticed that each actor playing two characters, one in the present and one in the past, is a nod to Buddhism, which states that each person lives multiple lives, and that your actions now affect the life you lead in the future. This fear of the next life dominates some of the characters, who find themselves seeking forgiveness in unlikely places.

Teng says he hopes the “Cambodian rock band” will show another side of his home. “Beyond the skulls you see on TV, there was great music and great things that happened before the war that we have to show the world,” he says. “I’m glad to be on the show.”

In reality, “Cambodian rock band” is not really about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, but the amazing music and intense love of a daughter who wants justice for her father, who, in turn, only wants to protect her from his past.

If music is truly Cambodia’s soul, then the fight for that music and what it stands for is the heart of the play. While researching the show, Kaur says his main question was, “Can you really destroy art?”

In the battle for the soul of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge lost and the music continued.

“Cambodian rock band” will be playing on the jungle stage until July 31. click over here for tickets.