Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos and Moses Villarama provide the tunes in "Cambodian Rock Band." Credit: Lynn Lane/Berkeley Rep

When Lauren Yee applied for a residency at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2016 to develop what was then called an “untitled Cambodia pop play,” the folks at Berkeley Rep had no doubt the project would become a hit. They were right. Cambodian Rock Band received its New York premiere in 2020, and after a pandemic pause, it’s back on the road and arrives at Berkeley Rep Feb. 25.

Cambodian Rock Band, Feb. 25-April 2, Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St.  Patrons must wear masks. Box office: 510-647-2949, Tues-Sun, noon-7 p.m. or visit Berkeley Rep.

This genre-defying play/rock concert puts Yee’s artistic fearlessness and brilliance on full display. The play follows a Khmer Rouge survivor who returns to Cambodia for the first time in 30 years as his daughter attempts to prosecute one of the country’s most infamous war criminals. 

Widen the lens and you’ll find a blend of family secrets and reckoning, a heart-wrenching look at one of history’s atrocities — and a psychedelic surf-rock concert featuring songs from Cambodia’s golden age of rock (1960s and ‘70s) and songs by Dengue Fever, a contemporary Los Angeles-based Cambodian and American band.

The show is “a joyful, raucous testament to the power of music,” says Yee. She was inspired to write the play after digging into the music of Dengue Fever, which covered Cambodian oldies, and wondering what had happened to the musicians of the time. 

Lauren Yee. Credit: Beowolf Sheehan

While at Berkeley Rep’s residency, called The Ground Floor Residency Lab, Yee realized that her play —about a father and daughter, Cambodian music and a dark event in Cambodian history — needed live music because “the protagonist risked his life for it.”

“I want to lead with a sense of joy and appreciation for those Cambodian musicians and to celebrate their music,” she added. Hear some of that music in this video trailer.

Before Yee became a nationally acclaimed playwright — and screenwriter with credits including Apple TV+’s Pachinko — she grew up in San Francisco and took full advantage of Berkeley Rep’s programs. She participated in the School of Theatre’s Teen One-Acts Festival, joined the Fellowship Program in the development/fundraising department and, after graduate school, returned to Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Residency Lab. 

Other local artists who have participated in the Residency Lab include Josh Kornbluth, Margo Hall and Sean San José, Kathryn Grody and Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble. This unique one- to four-week residency meets the artist where they are in their project and moves it along to the next stage. Unlike many other residencies, there’s no required final presentation, but if an artist would like a public reading, one is arranged.  Applications for this year’s Residency Lab are available and due on Feb. 24.

Separately, Berkeley Rep’s Fellowship Program gives individuals who are ready to embark upon a professional theater career the opportunity to learn alongside an accomplished company of artists, administrators, guest directors and designers. Applications for Berkeley Rep’s 2023/24 Fellowship Program are now available.