Catch Lauren Yee’s live music-centered survivors’ tale “Cambodian Rock Band” at Arena Stage through August 27
From July 19 to August 27, D.C. theatre lovers can catch “Cambodian Rock Band” at Arena Stage, a unique show that’s equal parts comedy, history, family drama and thrilling rock concert.
Written by Lauren Yee with a score by LA-based band Dengue Fever, “Cambodian Rock Band” tells the story of a father-daughter duo in 2008 who are heading to Phnom Penh — she to prosecute a notorious Cambodian war criminal, he re-acclimating to society 30 years after escaping Communist rule.
But the show jumps back in time, featuring a live band playing contemporary Dengue Fever hits and classic Cambodian oldies. This format illustrates how an entire generation of musicians were purged by the Khmer Rouge and also brings long-buried family secrets back to life.
“It a story about the complexities of what happened in the 1970s during the Cambodian genocide,” Brooke Ishibashi, who plays the daughter Neary says. “The most profound thing about this show is that it’s provided Khmer Rouge survivors and their families a platform to heal. They have an access point through their show where they can talk about what happened to them.”
The Arena production will feature many of the same actors who were part of the original reading in 2016 and part of the 2020 production at Signature Theatre. It is directed by Chay Yew with a cast includeing Kelsey Angel Baehrens, Francis Jue, Abraham Kim, Tim Liu, Jane Lui, Alex Lydon, Vi Tran and Joe Ngo (who plays the father).
The father/daughter dramatic – two people who struggle to communicate but find a way to discuss the past and create hope for the future through music – drives the show.
When the show transitions to the ’70s, Ishibashi plays Sothea, a woman in a ’70s rock band, the Cyclos.
“This was the music of that time in Cambodia,” she says. “They were on the break of a cultural revolution influenced by Afro-pop, French music and rock n’ roll. These folks were fusing these styles – a [sort of] psychedelic surf rock music.”
“But when the Khmer Rouge regime came in,” Ishibashi continues. “They obliterated everyone and everything. So, that legacy is largely gone.”
Ishibashi came from a family of singers and musicians. Her parents actually met in a rock band, so there’s some interesting parallels between this musical and her life.
“Live music has always been in my blood,” she says. “When this show came along, it felt like the most perfect fit in ways I couldn’t quite describe. When we talk about transgenerational trauma, I have the experience of Japanese internment (through my grandmother), my parents and their unrealized dream of a rock band in the ’70s. That’s all been passed down through the blood line.”
With the production scheduled for the next month at Arena, Ishibashi is looking forward to spending time in D.C., delivering what she calls, “a love letter to Cambodia” as part of this amazing story.
“Cambodian Rock Band” runs from July 19 – August 27 at Arena Stage, with 7:30 p.m., 8:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. performances scheduled. Tickets start at $66 and are available to purchase here.
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