Cambodian Rock Band depicts intergenerational trauma in moving father-daughter story | By Joan Thompson (Summer 2022)
Cambodian Rock Band, by Lauren Yee
(Directed by Lily Tung Crystal, Co-produced by Jungle Theater and Theater Mu, June 11- July 31, Jungle Theater, Minneapolis )
The co-production of Cambodian Rock Band by Jungle Theater and Theater Mu provides a highlight for summer theatergoers. Under the direction of Lily Tung Crystal, the narrative moves effortlessly between 21st century Cambodia and the Cambodia of the 1970s, both before and during the reign of Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge rebels that overthrew the republic in 1975.
When Chum (Greg Watanabe) returns to Cambodia, he hopes to talk his daughter Neary (Danielle Troiano) into giving up her research work for a non-governmental organization that is collecting information for the prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders. One of the leaders under scrutiny is Duch (Eric Sharp). Chum wants Neary to come home for law school. Neary, however, has learned of an eighth prisoner who survived S-21, the notorious political prison, and she is intent to find him.
Initially, Neary worries that her father will learn about her boyfriend Ted (Christopher Thomas Pow), but as the story of Chum’s life before and during the genocide unfolds, their father-daughter relationship deepens, and the story delves into the theme of intergenerational trauma. In the powerful second act, Chum relives his experience of living through the Khmer Rouge genocidal campaign that targeted its perceived political opponents and racial minorities. These scenes show the choices he and others made when society fell apart, and the power of resilience in those who survived.
Scenes in the play are interspersed with appearances by a rock band, Cyclos, playing the music of the Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever and the (more vintage) songs of Cambodian rock musicians popular in the early ‘70s. The band’s lead singer Sothea (played by Troiano) is in a relationship with guitarist Leng (played by Pow). Chum (played by Watanabe) is the bass player. Other members include keyboardist Pou (played by Mayda Miller) and drummer Rom (played by Shawn Mouacheupao).
In one significant scene, set in a moment when the group knows the Khmer Rouge rebels are approaching, the band records a tape and talks over what each will do in the future as musicians, writers, artists, and intellectuals all become enemies of the state. Throughout the story, strong musicianship and smooth transitions between rock sequences and dramatic scenes highlight the versatility of the cast.
Mina Kinukawa’s scenic and projection design are especially effective in bridging the years between events and showing relationships of past to present. The rock band appears on a split stage that moves off into the wings after songs are performed, creating smooth shifts to a hotel room, a spa, a karaoke bar, and S-21. Projected images allow Duch in his role as emcee, to underscore the history of rock music in Cambodia. This strategy highlights how the former Khmer Rouge leaders continued to be part of Cambodian life after the genocide. It also emphasizes the importance of music, particularly in the scenes of S-21, where Cham and Leng meet again.
Costume designer Khamphian Vang’s ‘70s rock band apparel adds to Cyclos’ authenticity and is important as band members seamlessly become other characters in the production. Music Director Mandric Tan’s experience as a producer also adds to the excellence of the music, which is central to the production.
Theater Mu recommends this production for ages 16 and above because of adult content including depictions of torture and other violence. The Jungle provides a space in the lobby for anyone needing some time away from the play.
Excellent acting, powerful rock, and strong production values make Cambodian Rock Band a must-see.
The play runs at the Jungle Theater through July 31. For tickets, visit: https://www.theatermu.org/cambodian-rock-band
Joan Thompson is a recently retired English professor who focused her career on advocating for diverse literary voices in college curriculum. She is also the mother of two adult Korean American adoptees and a Minnesota Master Naturalist who loves traveling, cooking, and birding.