The oddly hypnotic Cambodian Rock Band is a unique combination of disparate elements that skitter back and forth in time and emphasis. The audience may wonder why and where the Cambodian Rock Band is going. But talented local playwright Lauren Yee (King of the Yees, The Great Leap) and skillful director Chay Yew pull it all together as the storylines dramatically fuse the play’s conclusion.
The first element is music by a terrific Cambodian-American rock band consisting of the play’s talented and versatile cast (shout-out to singer Geena Quintos), who play 1970s music mainly by the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever. Later we learn about the unimaginable horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge — that late 1970s Cambodian genocidal communist regime. Finally, we see a daughter learn the mysterious truths of the father’s life.
But first in 2008, we meet Duch (excellent Francis Jue). He’s the oily, creepy, “only-obeying-orders” Himmler to Pol Pot’s Hitler. A former math teacher, he is finally about to stand trial for running the infamous Khmer Rouge S21 prison camp from which there are only seven known survivors. Pivotal to the trial is 26-year-old Cambodian-American NGO worker Neary (wonderful Geena Quintos), who has just found a photo of an eighth prisoner who may have survived the camp’s horrors.
And who pops up unexpectedly to visit Neary just before the trial? Her father, Chum (amazing guitarist and actor Joe Ngo). He hasn’t returned to Cambodia since he immigrated to the U.S. 30 years earlier. Though silent about his past, he behaves like a clichéd American, but his affect is somehow wrong. Chum’s false, pasted smile gives him away. And here’s where I thought the play had a too-obvious plot device. Spoiler alert: Although we learn the spoiler early in Act I, Chum may have been the eighth prisoner.
In Act II, as playwright Yee works to bring all the elements of the story together, we finally understand the band’s importance to the plot and the significance of music to Cambodians (and all of us). After all, one of the Khmer Rouge’s first acts was to outlaw music.
The highlight of Cambodian Rock Band is a raspy, hesitant prisoner Chum singing a transformative version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ that temporarily humanizes his captor. But we also watch the degradation of prison life and death and the evils of which all humans are capable — not only guards and wardens but also prisoners. And all are plagued with guilt over their actions and inactions.
Fortunately, the band electrifies the audience with upbeat musical numbers at the end of the play, in substitution for the happy ending that the Cambodian Rock Band cannot supply.
Cambodian Rock Band was developed in The Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work in 2016. This production is presented in association with Alley Theatre, ACT Theatre/5th Avenue, and Center Theatre Group.
Cambodian Rock Band runs through April 2 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street. It’s approximately two hours and 15 minutes long, plus a 15-minute intermission. Patrons must wear masks. Tickets $49-$123, subject to change, can be purchased online or by phone at 510-647-2949.