by Isabelle Wattenberg
This month, Jungle Theater and Theater Mu present Cambodian Rock Band, a play by prolific New York-based playright Lauren Yee. The story follows a survivor of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide who returns home for the first time in three decades to reckon with his past as his daughter prosecutes one of the war criminals who lead the regime. It’s a tale of generational trauma, history, truth–and rock music, and threaded throughout the production are songs from the repertoire of psychedelic rock band Dengue Fever and other Cambodian rock classics. This is the Minnesota premier for the play and the cast was thoughtfully selected to feature local talent, including Hmong American musician Shawn Mouacheupao and Theater Mu veteran Eric Sharp. We nabbed a few minutes of Sharp’s time to learn more about the production.
DISPATCH: Cambodian Rock Band has been called a ‘rock epic’ but it also explores intergenerational trauma, truth, history, and much more. Should attendees expect to spend the evening toe-tapping? Tearing up? Both?
Eric Sharp: All of the above and more! Lauren’s skill as a writer is that she can have you laughing out loud one minute, and on the edge of your seat the very next. This balancing act progresses throughout the piece. There is not a single scene that can be characterized in only one way. As an actor, this makes her work a real challenge and a real joy to perform. Audiences should also know that the production also takes an honest look at the realities of life under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia. Ultimately the show is about the bonds of love between family members, and the inheritance of pain, loss, and ultimately redemption.
The play incorporates songs from the LA-based psychedelic Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever and other Cambodian classics. Can you talk a little bit more about the role that music plays in the production and how it helps tell the story?
The music in the show is so. much. Fun! I was new to the music of Dengue Fever and the Khmer oldies that are featured in the show, and now I can’t get them out of my head. Dancing in the aisles is a major possibility… The lovely thing that separates this from a jukebox musical is that every song is in service to the journey of the father/daughter duo at the heart of a very personal family story. The band members all portray multiple characters in the play, as well as morphing the way they accompany each individual scene. It’s a theatrical magic trick to be able to utilize the full virtuosity of each instrumentalist in this way.
Theater Mu has produced works by playwright Lauren Yee before–what makes you excited to collaborate with her again?
I’ve had the great joy of being Lauren’s friend and colleague since appearing in Mu’s production of her hilarious play Ching Chong Chinaman in 2009. It’s been such a joy to celebrate her success during the intervening years. The same things attract me to her writing now that I noticed performing her earlier work: her irreverence, her concentration on the frayed but lasting bonds between generations of Asian American parents and children, and the sheer scope of her theatrical sensibilities. And it must be said – she is a master of dialogue. Her plays are just so much fun to perform.
The play debuted in 2018 and has been presented at theaters across the country. What does Lily Tung Crystal’s perspective as director, and the fact that the play is showing in the Twin Cities, bring to the production?
I believe that all theater is local. Or perhaps more accurately, all theater should be viewed from the lens of a local. Lily is a true collaborator. She and the team we’ve assembled will ensure that our CRB is presented in a way that only Mu and the Jungle can deliver. Our Asian American community also differs in so many beautiful ways from those on the coasts where the majority of the productions have been performed. I’m also excited about the prospect of the vibrant Khmer Minnesotan community getting to share in the production.
When You Go:
June 11 – July 31, 2022
$45-90, Sliding Scale starts at $5
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