UCSD grad Lauren Yee mixes music and history in her play ‘Cambodian Rock Band’
Locally trained playwright will debut her music-driven, time-jumping show at La Jolla Playhouse
The story at the center of Lauren Yee’s music-propelled play “Cambodian Rock Band” stretches halfway around the world and a half-century back in time — to the war-ravaged Southeast Asia of the 1960s and ‘70s.
But a key inspiration for this nationally buzzed work, which is about to receive its first area production at La Jolla Playhouse, is rooted a lot closer to home — in, of all things, a visit to San Diego’s annual Adams Avenue Street Fair eight years ago.
Yee was still a student in the University of California San Diego’s renowned graduate playwriting program when she found herself in Normal Heights one Saturday evening in September 2011.
“One of my friends who was a Ph.D. in the econ program had seen this amazing band play when she was doing a language class in Wisconsin,” Yee recalls now. “And that band happened to be called Dengue Fever.
“So she dragged me to this show. We almost missed their set, but it was just this explosion of sound. They’re infinitely joyful, and they put on a really great show. I heard their music and immediately said, ‘Let me hear more.’
“And I went down this rabbit hole of listening to their music, and basically hearing what their music was based on, which was this whole rock scene in Cambodia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I was researching what happened to those musicians — how many of them just did not survive the Khmer Rouge genocide.
“And I was like: ‘There is a play here.’ But it took me a long time to figure out what that was and how to do it.”
In fact, it would not be until 2018 that “Cambodian Rock Band” received its world premiere, at South Coast Rep in Orange County.
In the meantime, Yee had risen to become one of the hottest young playwrights in America, starting with a couple of works — “Hookman” and “The Hatmaker’s Wife” — that she developed at UCSD and saw produced outside the university before she even graduated in 2012.
Her more recent plays “King of the Yees” and “The Great Leap,” along with “Rock Band,” have helped make Yee the second-most-produced dramatist in the nation this season, and her tally of major awards is longer than a lot of people’s weekly grocery lists. (Among those honors is a 2019 Doris Duke Artist Award, which came with $275,000.)
And while she grew up in San Francisco, Yee actually earned one of her very first writing prizes in San Diego: Her play “Over the Asian Airwaves,” written when she was 18, was among the contest-winning works produced at the Old Globe by the locally based Playwrights Project in the 2005 edition of its annual Plays by Young Writers Festival.
Dad and daughter
One theme that pops up frequently in Yee’s plays is that of parent-child relationships, and she visits it once again in “Cambodian Rock Band,” a work that’s also informed by a trip Yee took to Southeast Asia the same year she first saw Dengue Fever perform.
Its story — which is interwoven with songs by both that band and vintage Cambodian rock artists — centers on a young Cambodian-American woman who travels to the country of her family’s heritage three decades after the murderous purges by the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s.
She’s there to try and track down an infamous Khmer Rouge leader, with hopes of bringing him to justice. But her own dad turns out to be in Cambodia, too, and his connections to the country’s onetime rock scene as well as its agonized past are what drives the piece.
If that makes “Cambodian Rock Band” sound like one very dark saga, though, Yee is quick to say there’s much more to the story than that.
“I think there’s a lot of pain around that narrative,” she acknowledges. “But I think this play is incredibly joyful. It’s incredibly funny.
“I know if people haven’t seen or read the play, they’re going to be going, ‘What? How could that possibly be true?’ But it is absolutely a play about survivors. It’s about the resilience of rock music. It’s about family.”
Yee’s mention of the play’s humor is reminiscent of something she said back in 2012, in a Union-Tribune interview about Moxie Theatre’s local production of an early version of “The Hatmaker’s Wife”: “I always like to think my plays contain things that maybe shouldn’t be funny.”
Reminded of that quote, Yee says with a laugh: “Yeah, it’s true!”
While “Cambodian Rock Band” is not quite a musical, the show’s actors all double as musicians and play numerous tunes, in the style of surf-rock-meets-psychedelia that defines both Dengue Fever’s sound and the songs of vintage Cambodian acts.
Chay Yew directs Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo, Daisuke Tsuji and Moses Villarama in the Playhouse staging, which is officially billed as a presentation of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s earlier production.
Gabriel Greene, the Playhouse’s director of artistic development, has charted Yee’s work since she was a UCSD student, and notes that “we’ve been wanting to get her back here ever since she graduated.”
He admires how in “Rock Band,” the playwright is “walking a real tonal tightrope, because it’s set against the backdrop of this unthinkably horrific historical event. But she imbues it with a surprising and improbable degree of humor and heart.”
And while he’s loath to give away too much about the story, Greene adds: “I’m always seeking theatrical experiences that land like a punch in the gut. I love to just be ambushed in a production. And what she does here is very cannily sets expectations in one way, at the start of the play, that seduces you and wins you over — and then yanks the rug out from under you.
“I love being that disoriented in a show.”
For Yee, seeing “Rock Band” circle back to Southern California feels like a promise fulfilled. She remembers how at South Coast Rep, which is “right next door to a very large Cambodian-American population,” the play proved so popular that members of the community ultimately couldn’t get tickets.
“So I said, ‘We’ll find a way — the play will come back.’
“You hope that will be the case. But to be able to do it in La Jolla is really special.”
‘Cambodian Rock Band’
When: Previews begin Nov. 12. Opens Nov. 18. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 15.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.
Tickets: About $25-$81 (discounts available)
Phone: (858) 550-1010
Three by Yee
A quick look at a trio of other key works by Lauren Yee:
“The Great Leap” (2018): Based partly on the adventures of Yee’s own dad in the world of basketball, the play featured the Tony Award-winning actor (and former La Jolla Playhouse resident artist) BD Wong in its off-Broadway production. Cygnet Theatre will stage its San Diego premiere in January.
“King of the Yees” (2015): Another piece inspired by the playwright’s dad, this one is a fantastical variation on Larry Yee’s real-life stewardship of a venerable men’s club known as the Yee Family Association.
“The Hatmaker’s Wife” (2011): Yee’s surreal domestic fable premiered at UCSD under the title “A Man, his Wife, and his Hat,” and had an early professional staging at San Diego’s women-centered Moxie Theatre. Its 2013 off-Broadway production was directed by the now-celebrated Rachel Chavkin, a 2019 Tony winner for “Hadestown.”