In CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND by Lauren Yee, the music spits in the face of oppression

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Family secrets, political history, moral dilemmas in the face of genocide, and loud rock tunes blend horribly into Lauren Yeeis engrossing and (for this reviewer) informative new drama Cambodian rock bandan often horrifying, but ultimately exhilarating reminder that if there’s one thing totalitarian regimes fear, it’s artists.

Joe Ngo, Abraham Kim, Courtney Roseau, Jane Him
and Moses Villarama (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“Welcome to Cambodia, 2008!” greets Duch, our host for the evening, played in a devilishly sardonic tone by the always intriguing stage treasure Francois Jue. “The jewel, the pearl, the Strait of Southeast Asia. The lost cause of lost causes!

We’ve just been treated to a raucous opening sung and played by The Cyclos, which Duch says is “from their first, last, only album, recorded in Phnom Penh, in April 1975. A band which, like so much music Cambodian woman of the time, no longer exists.”

We’ll eventually find out that, in Yee’s blend of fact and fiction, the song was recorded just before the news broke that US troops had left Cambodia, leaving its citizens at the mercy of the invaders. Khmer Rouge. But first Duch informs the ignorant that he is the former math professor who oversaw the torture and execution of over 20,000 prisoners sent to S21. As scripted by Yee, the character claims to have been a victim of circumstance, trying to survive by being an insignificant cog in the works until his despicable role was thrust upon him.

In 2008, Near (Courtney Roseau), a american lawyer of of Cambodian origin, is in Phnom Penh as part of the team preparing the case against Duch, now 66, who lived incognito for decades before a series of pieces of evidence led to his arrest for crimes against humanity.

Neary is frustrated that some of the seven known survivors of S21 could be considered unreliable witnesses.

“The most vocal survivors are also the ones who have the most to gain from Duch’s conviction. Duch walks and what happens to them? Who buys their book, who hires them for speaking engagements?”

But the discovery of evidence pointing to the existence of an eighth survivor revitalizes his case.

When Neary’s father of Cambodian origin Chum (Joe Ngo), who has never shown much interest in his daughter’s career, suddenly shows up in town, he feels the lawsuit is a waste and prefers to spend time with her doing touristy things like visiting a spa where hungry fish nibble dead skin from customers’ feet.

Cambodian rock band
Francois Jue (Photo: Joan Marcus)

When the piece returns to the 1970s, we see that Chum was a guitarist during The Cyclos, who performed their last song together, alone in a recording studio, after realizing they all had to flee for their lives. The decisions made by him and a friend of the group have haunted him for thirty years. Like many who survive the violence of war and abuse, Chum does not like to talk about his experiences, but his silence contributes to a generational gap in communication and understanding.

Director Chay Yew deftly handles the piece’s tricky passages, from historical drama and cute comedy to dark humor and vibrant bursts of musical challenge. In the same way Ngo’s portrayals of Chum as a 21st century father and 1970s guitarist, four actors double as 2008 characters and band members, with Moses Villarama on the guitar, Jane Him keyboard, Abraham Kim on drums and Reed on lead vocals playing a character named Sothea, named after famous Cambodian singer Ros Serey Sothia, who disappeared during the genocide, with many theories and rumors as to what became of her.

Songs formerly recorded by Sothia are part of the mix of hard rock, surf, bubblegum, psychedelic and other genres that make up the piece’s song list. Other selections were written by members of the contemporary American group dengue feverspecialists in Cambodian music of the time, and by Cambodian stars of pre-The Khmer Rouge years Yol Aularong and Sinn Sisamouth, both alleged to have been murdered by the regime.

While the songs aren’t plot or character specific, they are essential to the drama, providing an atmosphere of rebellious fun that spits in the face of the oppressors who have tried to silence it forever.

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