BWW Review: A Country's Soul Beats in CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND
Heartwarming is not an adjective one would normally associate with a play that uses one of the 20th century's largest and inhumane acts of mass genocide (the Khmer Rouge's bloody Killing Fields) as a background for its tale, but playwright Lauren Yee deftly pulls off this accomplishment with her play CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND.
Much like in Yee's play KING OF YEES (seen at the Goodman in 2017), the father-daughter relationship is at the core of the piece and Yee succeeds in further exploring the bond between an Asian father and his daughter in the new work.
It's both an examination of a truly dark point in human history and an uplifting look into the enduring bond between a father and daughter.
Cambodian American Neary (Aja Wilstshire) has abandoned plans for law school to spend two years in Cambodia working on a case to bring members of the Khmer Rouge to justice for their crimes against humanity. She is sharing a hotel room with her Canadian Thai boyfriend Ted (Mattew C. Yee) when her father Chum (Greg Watanabe) unexpectedly arrives with the hopes of bringing her back to America. She is on the trail of an elusive eighth survivor from Tuol Sleng -a prison camp known as S-21 and has no plans of returning stateside just yet. . This witness could be the different between conviction or acquittal.
As Neary, Wilstshire is somewhat stubborn in her desire to get justice not only for Cambodia, but for her father who fled the country during the genocide and seems to embrace the fact that she will never live up to her father's expectations of her ("I am disappointment made flesh," she tells Ted early into the first act).
Watanabe injects much humor and hope as the father who wishes to leave the past behind for reasons that become all too apparent as secrets are brought into the light.
Rammel Chan narrates many of the scenes as Duch, the first and only member of the Khmer Rouge to be tried for crimes against humanity. He oversaw S-21. As narrator, he is charming, flamboyant and funny; a nod perhaps to how even the most evil of people see themselves when in control of their own story. The second act is told from Chum's perspective and in those scenes Chan portrays him a bit more chillingly.
The music is high energy, psychedelic surf (think some of the more trippy tracks by The Monkees crossed with The Beach Boys and you're have a good sense of the tone and feel of the music.) One doesn't need to understand the words to embrace the spirit and energy of the music. All of the music comes from Los Angeles-based rock band Dengue. Many of the songs are covers of traditional rock music from the era including Ros Serey Sothea's "Chnang Jah Bai Chngagn." It's one of the rare instances that the chorus is presented in English. Basically, the oldest of rice pots still makes some tasty rice.It's an adage that holds true in the work; rock songs from more than 40 years ago manage to not only hold up, but elevate the show with music embodying at various points political defiance, love and hope.
is the Detroit of South East Asia," quips Chum at one point in the play. It gets a lot of laughs, but it's also poignant. Imagine the Cambodian rock bands of the piece as a part of Detroit's legendary Motown. Now imagine if the U.S. government carried out a program in which every musician, producer, writer and singer ever involved with Motown were executed. Now add all of Hollywood, playwrights, authors and most teachers/professors to the kill list. One cannot discount the grave impact the Khmer Rouge's policies had on Cambodian culture. They have only recently begun to reclaim their cultural identity.
If music is the soul of Cambodia, in CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND, Lee succeeds in recouping more than just a bit of it.
CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND runs through May 5 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln. Tickets $32-$65. victorygardens.org