Critics occasionally use the word “indescribable” to describe experiences that can only truly be understood through a first-hand encounter. Some plays have such a thoroughly realized uniquely original voice, that audiences find it challenging to communicate their experience to people who have not yet participated in the theatrical event. Such is the case with playwright Lauren Yee’s ambitiously pleasing work, Cambodian Rock Band, now playing at the Act Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. Cambodian Rock Band is indescribably good.
Honestly, I am at a bit of a loss in how to communicate what I experienced. Cambodian Rock Band is full of laughter, vibrant energizing music, and genocide. It’s part drama, part comedy, part history lesson, part rock concert, and part Cambodian genocide. Did I mention genocide? I am almost reluctant to use the word genocide in this review because the reader will make assumptions about the play, based on that word, that will be completely wrong.
The primary goal of Cambodian Rock Band is not to educate the world once again on the murderous atrocities of the Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge communist regime in the 1970s. Although younger generations and lesser informed individuals will certainly be educated about the Cambodian genocide, Cambodia Rock Band does not let genocide steal the show.
Up front, the audience is directly confronted with the reality that many non-Cambodian people primarily think of Pol Pot, genocide, and The Killing Fields when they think of Cambodia. Lee will not allow for these atrocities to set the agenda of the show or to limit our understanding of the Cambodian people. Instead, her work focuses on the culture that was lost and the culture that is generationally present within Cambodian immigrants and their families.
This is where the rock and roll comes in. The Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe out all forms of economic or social classes through outlawing private land ownership and religious practices. They saw musicians, artists, writers, and intellectuals as enemies of the utopian agricultural non-class-based society they believed they were creating. Consequently, they murdered individuals associated with the arts and they destroyed countless expressions of art, from books, to paintings, to music, to any cultural expression they deemed threatening to their communist ideals.
Cambodian Rock Band demands that we turn our focus away from the destroyers of humanity towards the art and beauty they tried to destroy. We are educated in the fact that there was a thriving rock scene in Cambodia before everything seemed to come to end and we are reminded that even though the Khmer Rouge killed the musicians, they could not kill the music. The music and the creative spirit behind that music defiantly remains. The music gets the last word and the last laugh.
Cambodian Rock Band is a story about the power of art and the power of creating and contending for beauty in the face of tyranny. The show reminds us that some ideas are so powerful, they cannot be thwarted, even when the proponents of those ideas are beaten, murdered, and seemingly forgotten. Art is essential, art is timeless, art makes us more human. Cambodian Rock Band demonstrates how making music can be an act of defiance and a tool for reconciliation. We are also urged to contend for the creative during our present age, as the threat of fascist fools and their need to subjugate and control still lurks on the horizon.
Cambodian Rock Band is sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes lighthearted, and sometimes thoroughly dark. There are joyous tunes, somber tunes, and moments of heart-wrenching silence. It is a bold theatrical attempt that pays great dividends. Yes, it is about genocide. We simply cannot escape the reality that millions died during a season of complete madness. Even so, we are not left in The Killing Fields. We are brought to a place that gives us hope that there is a collective song of humanity that is bigger, stronger, more enduring, and louder than the fading schemes of depraved murderous men.
The ensemble cast of Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim, Tim Liu, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo, and Phil Wong prove themselves to be excellent actors, musicians, and vocalists. Phil Wong (Duch) plays Will Ferrell level evoking cow bell with Jack Black energy. His complex role has just the right balance to make the audience thoroughly confused and uncomfortable through much of the show. Joe Ngo (Chum) displays amazing range, from pestering elderly father to rock n roll youth. He powerfully demonstrates his inner turmoil through rage, humor, and heart. Brooke Ishibashi (Neary) is definitely the lead vocalist of the band and the actor who anchors the ensemble cast.
She felt profoundly believable as the character most representing the audience’s perspective.
Using the songs of the band Dengue Fever works in rooting the show in the past while providing a contemporary musical vibe. In other words, I enjoyed the music, even when I couldn’t understand the language. The production of Cambodian Rock Band is a great collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and Act Contemporary Theatre. Personally, I think they should play ball together on a much more regular basis. In fact, I was once again reminded that the Mariners and the Seahawks are not the only ticket in town, and unlike sports, you won’t leave most Seattle theatrical presentations thoroughly disappointed. In fact, you might even find a little joy amid this frequently depressing world. If you choose to buy tickets to Cambodian Rock Band, you’ll definitely experience the power of music and art.