Quote of the Day: It discusses a very tragic moment in history, but the beautiful thing about this play is that Lauren (Yee) has taken the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide and paired it with the beauty of art and music. Lily Tung Crystal, Artistic Director for Theater Mu and director of the historical musical Cambodian Rock Band, playing at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN, through July 31, 2022.
I brought my friend Joanna and her daughter, Miss B, to this production. I love bringing young people to the theater, and I thought this story would be of interest to Miss B. She loves music, theater, and movies, and she’s very interested in Asian culture. Plus, I’d like to think she likes hanging out with her mom and mom’s friend once in a while, too. After all, we did bring her on the epic road trip last year! Miss B said, “I really liked the way they told this story. Especially for someone like me who didn’t really know anything about the history.” It’s told in a way that brings to light the terrible history, but also shows humanity and hope. Certainly, there were scenes that were hard to watch, but in the end, the play is about a father and daughter, coming to terms with the past, understanding who you are, and where you and your ancestors come from, and strengthening their relationship.
The performance begins with a loud and captivating song by the band Dengue Fever who composed songs for this musical (Music direction by Mandric Tan). The cast plays their music live on stage, sung in the Khmer language (Mongkol Teng, cultural/language consultant). We’re immediately brought into another time and place. The performers are dressed in fashions from the 1970’s (Costume design by Khamphian Vang). The scene changes and Duch (Eric Sharp) comes out and acts a narrator, giving us a brief history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge as the actors change clothes and the set turns into a hotel room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2008. Neary (Danielle Troiano) is in the city, working for attorneys who are prosecuting people for atrocities on the Cambodian people during the rule of Pol Pot. She has a picture of an unknown survivor of the infamous death/work camp S-21. Her father Chum (Greg Watanabe) shows up unannounced. This throws Neary off. “What are you doing here?” she asks. He has come to bring her home and to protect her from the horrible truths surrounding their mother country. Stories he’s never shared with her. “Why did you come back here?” he asks. She responds, “How could I come back when I’ve never been here before?” But, the story of our parents’ past is the story of their children, and grandchildren. And, knowing it, however painful and terrible, is better than not knowing.
Like most daughters, Neary doesn’t want to disappoint her father. She really doesn’t want her dad to know that she has a boyfriend and that they share a hotel room. Ted (Christopher Thomas Pow) comes in, and they have a humorous moment where Neary tries to pretend that they’re just friends. At first, Chum tries to show his daughter the lighter side of Cambodia. They talk about how beautiful it is. They go to a fish massage place, where you soak your feet in a tank and fish eat the dead skin off your feet. But, Chum’s story and the history of his homeland can’t be ignored. During the flashback scenes from 1978, Chum is in the rock band, and doesn’t want to leave Cambodia, even as the horrible changes are closing in.
Other actors in this production play various characters and perform in the band. Mayda Miller on keys. Shawn Mouacheupao on the drums. All the while, Duch weaves in and out of the story, providing background information, commentary, and showing us what fear of pain and suffering and death can do to people. Eric Sharp does a brilliant job of creating sympathy for an unlikable character. At times, he’s just a narrator, a comedic distraction. Then, he’s a tyrant. Sharp pulls this off, brilliantly.
Cambodian Rock Band is a story of family, a war torn country, love of home and art. It’s about music and it’s power to connect, lift up, inspire, rebel, and heal. The scene in the S-21 camp when Chum plays the Bob Dylan song, The Times, They Are A-Changin’, brought tears to our eyes. This is a play with music that will create good discussion on your drive home. Miss B said it made her think about how people are suppressed in many ways from people of color to those with disabilities or who live and love a different way.
Theater Mu is presenting Cambodian Rock Band in partnership with the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN. Go to the Jungle Theater website for performance and ticket information. This is not a show for young children. They are asking that ages 16 and older attend, as some scenes and themes are disturbing.
Go. Create. Inspire!
Journaling Prompt: What do you know about your family’s history? How far back can you trace your roots?