In ‘Cambodian Rock Band,’ Joy Rises From Brutality

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A Cambodian woman in a red dress sings into a microphone while reaching to the ceiling; a keyboardist in dark blue lighting stands behind
Geena Quintos and Jane Lui in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Lynn Lane/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

On the surface of Cambodian Rock Band, recently opened at Berkeley Rep, The Cyclos are set ablaze; the band’s celestial sound and Khmer-language lyrics flutter to the heavens as each musician drills every urgent note into a personal psalm. Just below that surface, though, is impending extinction, forcing every member to shred with desolate desperation. Mere moments away, the soul of a band awaits sickening silence built from the darkness of genocide.

This melding of concepts, drawn from the Khmer Rouge and the ultimate fate of Cambodia’s thriving rock music scene in the ’60s and ’70s, is given an intricate dramatization by the scintillating pen of San Francisco native Lauren Yee. Cambodian Rock Band, running through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is both harrowing and healing in equal measure.

The piece’s arcs explore familial secrets, generational trauma and the searing honesty between an immigrant father and his American daughter, all informed by exquisite Cambodian rock music crafted by the real-life band Dengue Fever. Yee’s plotting is masterful, a showcase of craft, and her storyline dips and darts within the constellations of artful magic.

A group of five friends raise bottles of beer in celebration, dressed in 1960s fashions
Joe Ngo, Geena Quintos, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, and Moses Villarama in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Lynn Lane/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

The narrative’s power lives within its secrets, revealed succinctly in an emotionally abundant second act. Neary (Geena Quintos), a lawyer, has spent two years in the heart of Cambodia, hot on the trail to prosecute a brutal Khmer Rouge official. Her father Chum (Joe Ngo) maxes out a credit card to visit his shocked daughter, and the visit — rooted in massive loss many years prior — becomes an increasingly personal mission.

Cambodian Rock Band sets many tones. Certainly, there’s nothing funny about the brutality of genocide, and Yee’s details of the evacuation by influential cultural figures, including the musicians of capital city Phnom Penh, are deeply distressing. And yet Yee’s wit is in fine form, with plenty of humor through dark subtlety.


Director Chay Yew frames his sublimely magnificent cast with exquisite precision, assisted mightily by Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, loaded with infinite surprises. Rock music lurches the story into the ether; as lead vocalist Sothea, the cherubic Quintos reaches divinity with each regal note. Meanwhile, hard choices of survival are made, unlocking demons that Chum must carry in his suitcase while escaping the Khmer Rouge to the United States. Survival, then redemption, awaits.

A young Cambodian woman and her father sit side-by-side, lower legs in a brightly lit hole in a stage
Geena Quintos as Neary and Joe Ngo as Chum in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Lynn Lane/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

As Chum, Ngo offers an astounding coup de maître, bringing major skill to his wide-ranging performance as both a 51-year-old father and his younger, ideal counterpart. He is gregariously committed to both his physical humor as a bumbling dad, and to his torment as internal and external conflicts rip him to pieces. He finds terrific rhythms when he and Quintos disclose their own longstanding pain, and he beautifully espouses wisdom to his daughter. Yee, who writes about father-daughter relationships as well as any playwright working today, provides the sentiments, while Ngo explodes them with organic truth.

The band as a whole is quintessential cool. Moses Villarama cuts a massive figure — only outsized by his hair — as stoic bassist Leng, and later engages in the same self-preservation of his fellow natives. Jane Lui kills throughout as the scintillating bandleader, joined by the gleeful drummer Abraham Kim. And Bay Area favorite Francis Jue, as Duch, delivers his typical terrific turn, an interpretation built from sparkling irony: the wider the smile, the crueler the intention.


For all the intricate storytelling in Cambodian Rock Band, its rousing finale gives the people what they want. There’s little in this world more joyful than a live tune cranked to 11 after experiencing brutal depredation while newly converted Cambodian rock fans get on their feet to worship their heroes.

Tears that sting can lead to souls that sing.

‘Cambodian Rock Band’ runs through Sunday, April 2, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. Details here.