In “Cambodian Rock Band,” playwright Lauren Yee ventures into trauma incurred by one of the most horrific moments of the 20th century: the genocide of at least 1.5 million Cambodians by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge. Yee’s work also depicts a multifaceted portrait of the Khmer living in Cambodia and the diaspora, through music and humor.
“While it chronicles a tragic and traumatic moment in Asian and Cambodian history, it also, through the power of music and art, lifts up the joy and resilience of the human experience,” says Lily Tung Crystal, Theater Mu’s artistic director who is directing a production of the play presented by Mu and Jungle Theater opening this week.
The story centers around a Khmer Rouge survivor who returns to Cambodia when his daughter is prosecuting a war criminal some 30 years after the genocide. Its soundtrack — besides music by contemporary Cambodian band Dengue Fever — uses hits from the 1970s, when the country was a center of arts and culture before the Khmer Rouge went on to destroy the careers and lives of artists and intellectuals. The Mu/Jungle production features the talents of local actors and musicians, including local vocalist/musician Mayda Miller, drummer and composer Shawn Mouacheupao, and Danielle Troiano.
To add to the authentic storytelling of the project, meanwhile, Tung Crystal brought in three Khmer artists: Cody Kour, Mu’s dramaturg fellow; Mongkol Teng, the cultural and language consultant; and Deryck Hak, a Mu acting fellow who takes on various ensemble roles in select performances.
“My goal is to respect the narratives and reality of the communities whose it is,” Tung Crystal says. “The story of the Cambodian genocide is so important and sensitive for the Cambodian community — we want to be as respectful as possible in the telling of that story. We want to tell the story in an authentic and honest and true way.”
Asian Americans are not a monolith, after all, and each community has specific experiences.
Cody Kour says research around the period is difficult in part because there aren’t many records from the historical period. “Lots of things were erased purposefully by the communists,” he says.
So Kour went straight to firsthand accounts, talking to his parents about their own experiences in Cambodia before they escaped.
“The country is still recovering to this day,” Kour says. “It probably might never recover, honestly. And then people in America, even my generation have intergenerational trauma because of the things that our parents had to do to escape, the things that they were put through.”
For his parents, the Khmer Rouge “completely destroyed their way of life,” he says.
“They lost their homes, their families, nothing was ever the same. That’s the story of all the Cambodian people. Everybody was affected by the genocide.”
Besides sharing stories from his family, Kour also watched rehearsals and provided feedback. For example, in watching one scene where the actors were playing in a rock band, he noted that Khmer musicians would typically be less performative. While Khmer people often are expressive when they are listening to music and dancing, typically, he told the actors, the rock band itself would be more reserved and allow the music to move through them.
“The way they were performing at this moment was very American,” he says. “They were head banging and really into it.” In Cambodia, people wouldn’t be making that much movement. “They don’t celebrate or play like that,” he says. “They have a different style.”
What Kour especially appreciates about Yee’s play is the way that the music offers an avenue of resilience for the portrayal of Cambodian people. While Cambodia experienced a tremendous tragedy that still deeply affects its diaspora to this day, he recalls the Buddhist notion of the lotus flower to explain how the Khmer experience that tragedy.
“The lotus flower is representative of beauty coming from mud. It literally can’t grow without being in the mud first. And then when it finally pushes up past that surface, it’s the beautiful flower,” Kour says. “The genocide is tragedy mixed with the beauty. They’re together. You can’t really separate it. You have to go through the mud and the darkness to emerge into something beautiful.”
Cambodian Rock Band runs June 8- July 31 at the Jungle Theater. Pay As You Are pricing asks those who routinely pay $45 for theater tickets to pay that amount – it’s the market value – but if an audience member needs to pay less, they can choose to do so.