Sometimes, a night out will unexpectedly change the course of your life. For playwright Lauren Yee, that was an evening in 2011. While living and working as a grad student in San Diego, Yee found herself at a Dengue Fever concert with friends. There, an immediate love of the band and its trademark blend of 1960s Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock led her down a rabbit hole of modern Cambodian history. This inspired Yee to write her play with music Cambodian Rock Band, which now debuts at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre directed by Chay Yew, following multiple productions around the country.
There were many years, and multiple drafts, between that first Dengue Fever concert and the show’s recent trail of success. “It’s the play that I never thought I would write,” says Yee. “I didn’t know yet how to tell a story that was about survival and joy, and the rocker’s spirit of what it means to make art and make music.” Because Cambodian Rock Band is not just an intimate rock epic with a live band; it’s also the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor returning to Cambodia for the first time in decades, as his daughter prepares to prosecute one of Cambodia’s most infamous war criminals.
While researching the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, Yee learned of the party’s attempts to eliminate Western-influenced culture and art. “There was this incredible, very modern-sounding musical history that the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe off the face of the earth,” says Yee. “We as American artists make our art without much thought about the consequences or how it might be threatening to a political regime… I was very moved by the work of those artists. I was struck by the music and wanted to share it in some way.”
Cambodian Rock Band features the songs of Dengue Fever as well as classic Cambodian songs. The play’s story has also been shaped by the real life of one of the show’s actors, Joe Ngo, whose parents escaped Cambodia during its most brutal chapter.
“It’s been a play that has very much lived in my heart and also lived and breathed in his heart, too,” says Yee. “I think it’s a play that exists because of the people, especially Joe, who became part of this show.” When Yee spoke to Ngo about his mother, a woman often described as one of the happiest people, she knew she had found what was missing. “That’s usually the opposite of what we’re presented with when we think of survivors,” says Yee. “[But] joy can be a survival strategy. It’s another way that we chose to say, ‘I choose to live.’”