What happens when the music stops? What happens when it vanishes, is banned, or even becomes punishable by death? That’s one of the hooks that draws audiences into Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, by turns a boisterous, solemn, and periodically campy new Off-Broadway production that gets its ya-ya’s out — and lets audiences do the same. It reveals the story of one survivor’s journey through the horror of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, which began after the U.S. withdrew troops from Cambodia in the spring of 1975 and the country fell to Pol Pot (a.k.a. Brother Number One) and his antithesis-of-merry band of communists.
The play tells a story that has become far too common about surviving mass arrests, labor camps, and disappearances through both history and headlines about more recent regimes — Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Chinese treatment of the Uighurs, and the massacre of the Banunu in Congo — that defiantly celebrates freedom of choice, artistic creation, and, in the words of this playwright, “the Cambodian surf-rock scene of the Sixties and Seventies.”
Starting in Phnom Penh in 2008, the story toggles back and forth in time, to 1975 and then 1978, as Chum, a musician-turned-prisoner (for being in a rock band) comes face to face with his American-born activist daughter, Neary, and the Khmer Rouge war criminal known as Duch she is trying to bring to justice — a real-life Khmer leader who’s still alive and has been imprisoned since 2010 for crimes against humanity. Onstage, the actors double in those roles and perform as a pre-revolutionary garage band on the cusp of success, playing works by Cambodian artists — Yol Aularong, Ros Serey Sothea, and Sinn Sisamouth (“the Elvis of Cambodia”) — all of whom disappeared during the Khmer genocide, as well as contemporary psychedelic tunes by L.A.-based indie band Dengue Fever, and, in a nod to the exact kind of Western influences the Khmer Rouge tried to erase, Bob Dylan. With sizzling bass, drums, keyboard, and electric guitar, searing vocals, and the occasional cowbell, the band swerves from ambient love songs to fiery rockers as Chum, Neary, and Duch snake toward the play’s inexorable collision of past and present.
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Like Fela!, Hamilton, and even Hedwig and the Angry Inch before it, Cambodian Rock Band uses historic realities and tragedies to tell a universal story of humans embracing art to transcend the most hellish struggles of personal pain and irreparable loss, asking what each of us would do faced with a genuine life-or-death struggle for daily survival, tackling how the human spirit can survive genocide and — if one’s lucky enough — its aftermath.
The answer, the play suggests, just might be to do what the characters of Cambodian Rock Band strive for and the actors of this very-2020 ensemble accomplish: Do whatever it takes to survive, start a rock band, and live your truth. As the play’s director Chay Yew puts it: “Art, music, and culture will always prevail.” Music endures, humans persist, and this music triumphs, becoming a sound for new generations to share, enjoy, and grow with, even as it outlives many of its original creators. What makes for a more defiant triumph than that?