How do you put genocide on stage? Lauren Yee starts with a rock band, which is playing so loudly when we enter that the theater management offers ear plugs for any who request it. A rock concert may seem an odd, even inappropriate, way for a play about genocide to begin, but what comes next is even more jarring in this disorienting, genre-bending show that shifts tone and time and focus — and may arguably be the best way, perhaps the only way, Yee could have told the story she wanted to tell.
The first character who speaks is an impish, teasing Emcee named Duch (Francis Yue), who interrupts the rock concert mid-song to remark: “Music is the soul of Cambodia.
“But that’s not what you think of when you think of Cambodia, is it?” he says. “YOU think of something a little more like this….”
And then Duch shows photographs of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, the insane regime that between 1975 and 1979 was responsible for the death of some two million Cambodians, or about a quarter of the entire population.
“Boring,” Duch says as he clicks through the slides. “Tragique!” he adds sardonically.
Duch is the narrator of Cambodian Rock Band, but we don’t learn until after intermission, some halfway through the two and a half hour play, that he’s central to the story. He’s a war criminal.
Comrade Duch was the nom de guerre of an actual member of the Khmer Rouge, Kang Kek Iew, who ran the infamous S-21 prison camp (really a death camp) and was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity.
In Act I, it is 2008 and a young American-born woman named Neary (Courtney Reed) has been working in Cambodia for two years investigating war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge three decades earlier – including those by Duch. Suddenly her father shows up at the hotel where she is staying. Chum (Joe Ngo) is an emigrant from Cambodia, and this is the first time he is returning to his native country. It is a surprise visit, and Chum is cagey about what he’s doing there.
The plot of Cambodian Rock Band hinges on a couple of coincidences that I probably shouldn’t tell you about, and that probably should have given me pause, but they didn’t bother me. I bought into these twists, or at least accepted their importance to the play’s cohesiveness.
Chum, it turns out, was a member of the Western-style rock band we saw at the outset, called The Cyclos. We are taken back to 1975, with Ngo convincingly transforming from Neary’s corny middle-aged Dad to the teenager electric guitar player with dreams of rock stardom. Five of the six cast members portray the musicians in the band, playing their own instruments. After recording their one and only album, their lives take unexpected turns with the country’s takeover by the Khmer Rouge.
The music has a resonance that goes beyond providing a respite of entertainment from some grim history; sung in the Khmer language, much of it was composed by Cambodians who were killed by the Khmer Rouge, or reconstructed by the American band Dengue Fever. Given its Western flavor, the music also offers a bridge for an American audience to see the Cambodian characters as just like you and me, not just “foreigners.” It is one of the many spot-on touches by director Chay Yew that the band sings in Khmer but speaks in English (for the audience’s convenience) without one of those insufferable “foreign” accents that too many playwrights impose on their characters (e.g. last year’s Broadway production of The Rose Tattoo.) When Ngo speaks English to his daughter in 2008, it is with a Cambodian lilt.
There is also here a lesson in what it means to be without music; a moving metaphor of the difference between humanity and inhumanity,
By the time Cambodian Rock Band takes us inside S21 for harrowing scenes of psychological and physical torture, Yee has prepared us in a way we didn’t realize.
Cambodian Rock Band made me think of two other stories that deal with unspeakable atrocities. The first was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” a novel inspired by his own experience as an American prisoner of war during World War II witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, but turned into a wild ride involving time-travel and alien abduction. It felt as if he couldn’t confront the trauma of the actual events head on, and didn’t feel we could either. This feels in contrast with Hunters, the current TV series on Amazon Prime in which Al Pacino leads a band of Nazi hunters, which is so cartoon-like in its over-the-top depiction of Nazi horrors that I found it unwatchable after a couple of episodes – not because of the horror, but because of its lack of authenticity.
Cambodian Rock Band is on stage at Signature (480 W 42nd Street, East of 10th Avenue,
New York, NY 10036) through March 22, 2020.
Cambodian Rock Band. Written by Lauren Yee; Songs by Dengue Fever; Directed by Chay Yew. Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by Linda Cho, lighting design by David Weiner, projection design by Luke Norby, sound design by
Mikhail Fiksel, music supervision by Matt Macnelly. Featuring Francis Jue as Duch, Abraham Kim as Rom/journalist, Jane Lui as Pou/guard, Joe Ngo as Neary, Courtney Reed as Neary/Sothea and Moses Villarama as Ted/Leng/cadre. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.