Theater Mu’s ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ Fights for the Soul of Cambodia

This Jungle Theater and Theater Mu co-production explores how art perseveres in even the darkest times

“Music is the soul of Cambodia.”

This is one of the most poignant lines of celebrated playwright Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band.” It’s also pretty ironic that this line is said by Kang Kek Iew, aka Duch (played by Eric Sharp), the cheeky narrator who reveals himself to be a member of the Khmer Rouge, the political party responsible for the deaths of almost a quarter of the population of Cambodia in the 1970s. Not only that, but Duch was the man overseeing Tuol Sleng (or S-21), a prison in Phnom Penh where thousands of Cambodians were killed. 

Theater Mu’s “Cambodian Rock Band,” co-produced by and performed at the Jungle Theater, made its Twin Cities debut last week, to run through July 31. The show premiered in southern California in 2018 and became one of the most performed plays across the U.S. in the following years. 

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In the play, Neary (played by Danielle Troiano at the Jungle Theater), a Cambodian American and self-professed “disappointment made flesh,” is on a research team attempting to prosecute Duch, who was found hiding out near the border of Cambodia for the last few decades. While gathering evidence in 2008 Cambodia, Neary finds a photograph of a previously unknown survivor of the S-21 prison, the first major break in the case in decades. At the same time, Neary’s father, Chum (played by Broadway alum Greg Watanabe), surprises her in Cambodia and begs her to drop the case and come home, saying she’s wasting her time on the past. The show includes flashbacks to Chum’s youth as a bass player in a spunky little rock band as the father and daughter each grapple with Chum’s horrific experiences in Duch’s prison.

Each cast member, other than Eric Sharp, plays two characters, one a 1970s Cambodian rocker and the other a product of the early 2000s. That makes the show a rock musical—featuring tunes by, among others, the L.A. band Dengue Fever, which combines ’60s and ’70s Cambodian rock music with other styles. At the same time, it’s a gripping play about reckoning with the past.

Non-Cambodian Americans may be familiar with the Cambodian genocide through the Oscar-nomiated movie “The Killing Fields.” “Cambodian Rock Band” is a new take on this fraught period. After a bitter civil war, dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 and relocated 2 million people out of the capital city, forcing them to work in labor camps or farms. Music, art, and other forms of free speech—especially anything deemed Western—was banned in an attempt to return Cambodia to its pre-colonial, agrarian roots.

The audience gets to enjoy the rocking soundtrack and powerful story because of the efforts of unsung heroes like the fictional Chum. “[The music and records] still survived because there were Cambodians who hid them, who remembered them, who wanted to keep them alive regardless of what the Communist regime did,” says Cody Kour, the dramaturg for the show. “You can have a whole government try to stomp something out, and the people and the art will survive.” 

This is a heavy story, and one that may feel incredibly personal to the thousands of Cambodians who have emigrated to Minnesota over the last 50 years. It also requires an exceptionally multi-talented cast. You need actors who can sing, play instruments, and perform songs in one of the most notoriously difficult languages to learn. Khmer, the language of Cambodia, 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 easily blended humor and heaviness, featuring standout performances by key cast members. 

Review

“Cambodian Rock Band” rocks out, but it is also the story of a man whose world is shattered by genocide and the resulting intergenerational trauma. 

It’s not for the faint of heart. There are graphic verbal and physical depictions of violence, which caused one audience member to walk out at the preview I attended. To support theatergoers, the Jungle Theater has a quiet area and resources if you need to take a break from the show, and attending is recommended for ages 16 and older. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are also fart jokes and sick guitar riffs. Justice for 1970s Cambodia is complicated, especially from the differing perspectives of the victims versus their U.S.-born children, and “Cambodian Rock Band” boldly embodies that complexity.

To start, the simple set, complemented by psychedelic lighting and decade-specific clothing (yes, there are ’70s go-go boots!), illustrates the time jumps without distracting from the meat of the story. 

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Actor Eric Sharp starts the show off strong with his unsettlingly charming portrayal of math teacher-turned-war criminal Duch. Think Taika Waititi as Adolph Hitler in “JoJo Rabbit,” but make it Cambodian. Sharp entertains with his radio announcer voice, boundless energy, and spot-on comic timing, as juxtaposed with his character’s sinister role in the history of Cambodia. His incredible talent, loaded with Yee’s masterful dialogue, takes aim at the “just following orders” mentality that some use to sweep their involvement in mass atrocity under the rug.

In flashbacks to their characters’ past in a band, Watanabe’s standout scenes with Christopher T. Pow (who plays 2008’s Ted and the 1970s’ Leng) tackle the buckling of two young men’s dreams under a genocidal regime that robs them of their youth. Watanabe and Pow are two of the strongest performers in “Cambodian Rock Band,” easily carrying the audience between past and present, performing some of the most intense scenes in an already dark show, and providing much-needed comic relief when they move forward in time, to play the overbearing father Chum and Neary’s Canadian boyfriend, respectively. 

Watanabe, who has performed alongside George Takei and Lea Salonga on Broadway, tenderly handles the roughest edges of Chum’s character. It’s a feat to bridge the gap between dorky dad and traumatized torture victim, while also rocking out on bass guitar.

The extreme emotional highs and lows of “Cambodian Rock Band” grip the audience in every scene. The dialogue alone, which alternates between banter among loved ones and harrowing revelations of past trauma, would make for a compelling play, but the music drives this show’s message home. Audiences will hear songs by Dengue Fever and Bob Dylan, and Cambodian Americans will recognize Cambodian classics by Sinn Sisamouth (aka Cambodian Elvis) and famed songstress Ros Serey Sothea.

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And you don’t need to understand the Khmer language to get into the music of the show. The cast’s accent work adds a layer of authenticity that makes this production extra special. As Neary, Danielle Troiano’s powerful vocals and expressive performance style also transcend the language barrier, holding the audience captive in raw emotions. 

Reflection

For a show steeped in history, and entertaining to boot, how did those involved find the right balance?

The playwright, Lauren Yee, did extensive research, and director Lily Tung Crystal brought on cultural and language consultant Mongkol Teng and dramaturg Cody Kour to deepen the authenticity of the show for Theater Mu’s and the Jungle’s audiences.

Teng, a native of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was the primary dialect coach, helping the cast navigate the band performances and making slight changes to the script to better reflect Cambodian culture. Teng grew up listening to several of the songs in the show and recognized some of the show’s themes from his own experiences, especially in the contrasting values of Cambodian parents and their U.S.-born children. “It reflects what it’s really like in Cambodian American families,” says Teng. 

Meanwhile, Kour performed research on Cambodia’s history, including by consulting his own parents, to inform the cast’s connection to the story. “I hope people walk away from the show thinking about healing and helping others heal,” he says. “Most often, when cultural or historical trauma is talked about, I feel the general response is ‘never again,’ which is of course correct, but survivors often do not get addressed or acknowledged as much—this is why it was so hard, and still is for some, for Khmer refugees to adjust to America.”

Teng and Kour, both Cambodian Americans, said they recognized parts of the Cambodia they know in the story. 

For example, Kour says that, similar to Christianity in America, Buddhism is deeply ingrained in the culture. While the Buddhist religion is not explicit in “Cambodian Rock Band,” it does subtly affect the structure of the show and the motives of certain characters. Kour says he immediately noticed that having actors play two people, one in the present and another in the past, serves as a reference to Buddhism, which holds that every person lives multiple lives, and your actions now affect the lives you lead in the future. This fear of the next life grips certain characters, who find themselves searching for forgiveness in unlikely places.

Teng says he hoped “Cambodian Rock Band” would 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 should show the world,” he says. “I’m happy that is present in the show.”

Indeed, “Cambodian Rock Band” centers around, not the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, but the incredible music and the fierce love of a daughter who wants justice for her father, who in turn wants only to protect her from his past. 

If music truly is the soul of Cambodia, the fight for that music and what it represents is the heart of the play. While researching for the show, Kour says his leading question was, “Can you truly destroy art?”

In the battle for Cambodia’s soul, the Khmer Rouge lost and the music played on. 

“Cambodian Rock Band” will be playing at the Jungle Theater through July 31. Click here for tickets.

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