I mention Cambodia to many Americans and the image that comes to mind is “Killing Fields,” photojournalist Death Bran termed the bloodstained dirt of his homeland.
During Pol Pot’s 1975-1979 dictatorship, Cambodia lost an estimated two million people – a quarter of its population – to war, executions, and famine.
Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian rock band” helps change perceptions of the Southeast Asian country even as it grapples with a heavy history.
The drama, which opened on Saturday in a co-production of Theater Mu at the Jungle Theatre, features a live band that tells of a father’s return to Cambodia after 30 years. Chom is back in search of his stray daughter, who helps gather evidence to prosecute war criminals.
The play tends to cleave generations and the necessity of addressing the past in order to move forward. It’s also about the power of culture. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, they declared a new era starting from Year Zero, outlawing a range of artistic practices, including music, as they sought to return the country to its agricultural past.
“No matter how you enter the play, music transcends all boundaries,” said Yi, a famous playwright. “We can all remember some songs or albums that we’ve listened to at very specific times in your life, which brings us back to those feelings. So music is a time machine that helps us go back.”
Secrets of generations
Rock band culminates in a trio of Yi that focuses on Asian American identity and the secrets of generations. The series began with “The King of the Yees,” which revolves around the search for her father in San Francisco’s Chinatown after his disappearance, and “The Great Leap,” the Guthrie Theater-themed basketball drama in 2019.
In crafting a “rock band”, Yi strove to make an almost impossible needle. It is the story of a father and daughter set in the face of world events. The father tried to keep his painful history about his daughter, but she feels it in her bones.
“A lot of things have combined into one thing,” Yi said.
Ye had never imagined that she would write a story like this. More than 10 years ago, when she was in graduate school at the University of California-San Diego, a friend dragged her to see Dengue Fever, a band that had earned a reputation for playing Cambodian seniors.
Ye was enchanted.
It’s that moment when you hear a sound and you get caught instantly,” Yi said. “I went in knowing absolutely nothing about the band and their music, but then, I wanted to know all about their story and their songs. That was the rabbit hole I jumped in.”
It will be a few years before the features of the play gather. She was doing a workshop in Seattle in 2015 when she met a versatile actor named Jo Ngo who could effortlessly embody the main character of Chom.
“His parents were born and raised in Cambodia, lived his time in the play, and he played electric guitar,” Yi said. She was a kismet.
Ngo will be performing at the 2018 world premiere at the South Coast Rep in Southern California.
The Twin Cities cast includes starring Greg Watanabe, who has played Chum in theaters in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Lowell, Massachusetts.
“When you tell people it’s against genocide, they think it’s going to make you despair,” Watanabe said. “But ultimately this story is about survival and how we celebrate life.”
It’s Mu’s first personal show since the pandemic began, said Artistic Director Lily Tong Crystal, who runs the production. Because of its extreme privacy, it resonates in a global way.
“My father is from a family of 17 children in China, and most of his brothers were killed by communist soldiers,” Tong Crystal said. “This is part of the fabric of my family.
“I don’t want to downplay anyone’s suffering, but this is a story of resilience. My parents grew up with a lot of suffering and loss, and there is pride in overcoming this and making a better life for our children.”
Jumping back and forth between the 1970s and 2008 – the time of the Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal – ‘rock band’ blends fantasy with real history, including at the S-21 prison in the capital Phnom Penh, where an estimated 20,000 people were held by exposure to kill.
Eric Sharp plays the man who runs that facility, known as Dutch (Pronounced Dweck).
“The reason we know about Dutch is not because he was the most evil or most important person in the Khmer Rouge,” Sharp said. “He was an ordinary guy who was very good at his job. Before the Khmer Rouge, he was a math teacher. He documented everything, basically built a [war crimes] case against him.”
Sharp visited Cambodia in 2009 during the Duch trial.
“I don’t think Cambodians want to know about this event,” Sharp said. “When we were there, this family hosted us, and it was beautiful. And I don’t want to speak for the playwright, but I think that’s what Lauren leans into — taking this painful period and giving it more dimension.”
“Cambodian rock band“
From: Written by Lauren Yee. Directed by Lily Tong Crystal for Mo Theatre.
where: Forest Theatre, 2951 Lindell Street. S., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Expires on July 31.
the tickets: Suggest $45. Pay what you can. 612-822-7063 or jungleheater.org
protocol: Required masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.