Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, which premiered earlier this year at South Coast Repertory, follows the efforts of Neary, a young Cambodian American working for an NGO in Cambodia, to arrange the trial of Comrade Duch, the first Khmer Rouge official to be held responsible in court for the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s; meanwhile Neary’s father, Chum, arrives to dissuade her from prying too deeply into their nation’s troubled past. Using flashbacks and live rock music, Yee’s play confronts a painful past with humor and grit. She spoke to Caylee So, whose new film In the Life of Music also considers the legacy of the genocide through the lens of Cambodian rock, about her play.
CAYLEE SO: Your play has a puzzle for the audience to uncover in the journey we go on with the characters. In the writing process, which characters came to you first?
LAUREN YEE: Some of the first things that occurred to me were the characters of Chum and Leng, who are kind of friends at the S21 prison in 1978. Once I started workshopping it with actors, I realized how much backstory and filling in I needed to do for a typical American audience to situate us and give us a real sense of the history, because that’s not something you’re able to see from the perspective of two people living in Cambodia in 1978—they have no sense of what’s going on in the rest of the country. After that, I started writing the father/daughter relationship, two people looking back at what happened in Cambodia at that time. That seemed to be the right combination, as we toggle back and forth from the past to the present (the present being 2008).
Did it frighten you to take a historical character like Duch and give him such charisma and charm? Did you wonder how the Cambodians who survived the genocide would receive such a humanization of a character that most blame for the atrocities of the genocide, on a level almost close to Pol Pot? That’s pretty brave.
Thank you. Duch’s terrible impact and legacy on Cambodia is something that’s just incredibly staggering. I found it not only repugnant but fascinating and complicated, because I think even though Duch was the first, he was by no means the only one, or the worst, perpetrator of crimes. And there were so many things in his real biography that I was surprised by—the fact that he’d been a math teacher, that he kind of was in charge of sculpting young minds. He constantly talked about being in fear for his own life while running S21. I think Duch is just one of those people that have so many contradictions. When you watch Rithy Panh’s documentaries that feature Duch and S21, he is by turns charismatic and chatty and enthusiastic, and also by turns seemingly penitent, and also by turns horrifying in what he’s describing. I wanted to give you a character that seduced an audience, in a way. Even if you don’t agree with what he’s saying, you’re like, “Oh, this guy’s really interesting. I want more of him.”
One of the things that is most endearing to me, being Cambodian American and growing up with the ’60s music, was seeing the music played live in your play. It feels like such a great way to capture the energy and the spirit of what binds us as Cambodian families, especially after the war. Was that decided on a directorial level or a script level?
It came about because I had such talented actors. When I initially conceived of this piece, I thought it would be a play about music, that we talk about the band and meet the band, but largely the music would come across through transitions, or maybe we’d play like a canned recording. Very luckily, Joe Ngo, who plays Chum, plays electric guitar and he sings. I also realized that there were just so many talented Asian American actors around me who were like, “Oh yeah, I used to be in a college band,” or, “I play drums,” or, “I play electric bass.” It became a real possibility because of all the talent around me.
Also, live music should be a component of it, because on top of losing some of the recordings of Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron during the Khmer Rouge era, we lost the live performance element. Even if some of this music survived in a recorded form, the musicians themselves were gone. And I thought, having these actors perform live was really the best way to celebrate what theatre does better than anything else, and also really give you a visceral sense of what this music felt like. It’s one thing to listen to the album of your favorite band, but to see them in front of you and to be sharing the space with them is such a different experience.
Did any of the songs guide the scenes and the story, or vice versa?
I think the Dengue Fever songs were the first songs that got introduced into the play. Because some of their lyrics are in English, there were certain songs where the overall message of the song contributed to the plot. But a majority of the music in the play is in Khmer, so I think it’s about giving the audience a sense of the feel and the message through the music and the performance. I would go on these long YouTube deep dives looking at different songs, trying to find ones that connected with me. For instance, “Champa Battambang.” I was trying to decide on that song and Joe, whose parents were born in Cambodia, was like, “My parents really love that song. Here’s a video of them playing it on the piano.” I was like, “Well, I guess that should be in the show.” I’ve got a question for you. In discovering the music when you did, did your parents have a reaction to these songs? Did they remember the music?
You know, it wasn’t until after I chose that song for my film that I went back home and asked my aunts and my dad to sing it. It’s surprising how much they remember, and if they didn’t, they would help each other remember it through the melody. It’s still kind of playing in their heads. I actually did a video recording of all these adults trying to come up with the lyrics without looking it up.
Oh, that’s hilarious. I think it is particularly noteworthy that Cambodian music is not just covers of American or Western music. It’s really this modern, distinctive sound that is found nowhere else. It is kind of all these influences, from traditional Cambodian music, French New Wave, some of the Vietnam War-era radio. It is so ingrained in the culture in a way that I just find incredibly unique.
Yeah, they were doing some really genius stuff in the ’60s. A lot of us wonder where the music would have gone to if not for the genocide. Maybe that’s why your play struck a chord with us so much. I don’t know what to reference in terms of telling people how much the genocide cost the country, or the scope of it. Music is one of those things.
When people say genocide and list numbers and give you facts and statistics, it can be hard for people to emotionally connect to that. When you play them a song and they fall in love with it, and you’re like, “That artist never got out of the Khmer Rouge years alive,” that does something to people in a way that’s hard to reach with cold numbers.
People probably ask you this a lot, because you seem to capture the Cambodian family very well: Did you spend a lot of time around Cambodian families?
First of all, I’m Chinese American, not Cambodian American. The second part is, I was already looking into the history of this period of time; it’s been haunting me for years. Because it’s not my background, I had to find the way into it that felt genuine and visceral. For me it was the father/daughter relationship and thinking about families where there is a wall that comes down in terms of information, and that’s more out of a sense of love than anything else. That was something that is prevalent in the Cambodian American community that I could really identify with and find something of myself in there.
What I love about this is that you took a story about genocide, which is very heavy, and there’s humor. Is that something innate in you as a writer, or did the characters just write themselves in that way?
I think it comes from two things. The first is that I’m just one of those writers who really thrives on being on the edge between kind of poignant and funny; it feels very human to give an audience that kind of combination of what real life is like. People’s real existences are full of funny, strange, absurd, sad moments. I think the other part of it is that, once again, Joe and his family were a huge influence on this play. Whenever Joe talks about his mom, who’s a Khmer Rouge survivor, he talks about this very joyful, fierce, strong woman who loves music and makes jokes and loves making food for the cast. You wonder how someone like that came to be. There are a variety of ways in which people respond to trauma. There are some people who close inward, and there are some people who kind of extend outward into the world. Joe’s mom falls into the latter category. I think that can kind of feel like an unexpected choice, but it’s one that feels very real and human to me. In the events that I’ve gone to in the Cambodian American community in Long Beach, I found that they’re always full of food and joy and music and dance. I’ve actually never gone to a Cambodian restaurant where music wasn’t a strong element, and there was probably very likely a house band playing. So I think to not give an audience a sense of how much music and the arts and joy matters to the Cambodian and Cambodian American communities is shortchanging them.