Cambodian Rock Band’s ‘Phnom’enal Success
Director Chay Yew cranks up the volume to showcase ’70s surf-rock tunes banned by the Khmer Rouge.
Lauren Yee’s hit play Cambodian Rock Band, one of the most-produced plays of the 2019–2020 season, finally lands on the Alley Theatre main stage. The captivating drama begins in modern-day Phnom Penh as NGO worker Neary receives an unannounced visit from her father, Chum, and jumps back in time to the Cambodia of the 1970s on the cusp of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Actors double as musicians in a live onstage band, playing the same surf-rock tunes that rang loud until the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal purge claimed the lives of two million Cambodians—including countless artists and musicians.
Helming this fragmented memory play-cum-musically mesmerizing time-travel trip is director Chay Yew, a multi-hyphenate award-winning playwright whose dramas center around LGBTQ and Asian identity. Yew has directed works regionally, off Broadway, and internationally, and served as artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater from 2011 to 2020, during which time he championed many new playwrights’ works.
Yew sat down with OutSmart ahead of the show’s Houston debut.
Clew: Having stepped away from the responsibilities of leading a theater, you now get to choose your projects. What’s feeding you now, and how do you orient your creative compass?
Chay Yew: What’s feeding me now is the new generation of writers who are able to see the world in a different way than I do, and who are continuing to light the flame. I’m fed when I work on these projects and deepen my understanding of humanity. We look at art, particularly in the theater, to tell stories, and I’m empowered to tell stories especially when I feel other communities are not being given visibility and a voice. So sometimes, working with people who I’m not in community with is enlightening for me [as we explore] how the story can become part of the American canon. America is a grand experiment, so how do we live together being a diverse, multiracial country? Sometimes the way to fuse communities is through art, or stories, or food! Those feelings, sensations, and tastes defy language, and through these we become one.
How are you balancing your time between bringing Kristina Wong’s Sweatshop Overlord to L.A. and all your other projects?
I’m also working on a new play at South Coast Rep, and then a few workshops including [a look at] upcoming work by playwright and poet Jesús Valles at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa.
You’ve worked with actors from all walks of life, including some who are now household names such as Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, Raúl Castillo, and BD Wong. How do you get the best work out of an actor?
By trusting them to do their best work, giving them the space, and challenging them to grow. These are special artists with their own unique ways of creating work. So sometimes you need to get out of the way, and sometimes give them the opportunity to look at things differently. The best artists are eager to grow, and that’s why they are dynamic actors.
I had the pleasure of seeing Yilong Liu’s Good Enemy at Audible Theater in New York. That play shared some things with Cambodian Rock Band: a father visiting to reconnect with his daughter; fractured memories of a life before; and the fantastic, fluid Francis Jue. Can you talk about these shared themes?
It’s an Asian trope, isn’t it? Parents and children—we can never get away from our parents because it’s part of our Asian-ness. [Sometimes] our parents or grandparents have fled from very horrible circumstances, be it political [uprisings] or famine, and the reason they come here is because they have no choice but to come here. And when they come to this country, they come to give their children a better world or opportunity than they have had. Sometimes not bringing up the past helps the children move forward more freely—or so they think. But then there’s a gap: “Well, if you don’t tell me then I don’t know who you are; if I don’t know who you are, then I don’t know who I am. Who am I?” And the cycle repeats. The country doesn’t learn, and we don’t learn. As much as we move forward with pride, we should never forget about our history and how to share it, particularly with younger people. It’s all about legacy.
I was able to see a production of the play in Minneapolis over the summer and was blown away. I think Houston is in for a treat. What might you say to audiences who fear that a show that includes foreign music or lyrics isn’t their cup of tea?
This play has a very interesting genre: it’s using surf rock, or psychedelic rock of the ’70s. Something I’ve noticed with our previews here is that audiences love the sound of it. It’s a live band on stage; it’s visceral. I’m mesmerized by the musicianship of the art. And then we see the music being destroyed and banned once Pol Pot comes into the play. And the silence is devastating. Though the music is in the Khmer language, it’s a reminder that it’s ultimately art. And again, with music, art, and food, we don’t need language, because we connect regardless.
You recently got to return to Singapore to not only see loved ones, but also to develop your work after having earlier plays banned in your home country because of their explicit focus on queer themes. What was that homecoming like for you?
It’s complicated, because the Singapore I grew up in is a different place than today. I don’t feel any nostalgia or emotions, just memories. What’s alive is the food and my friends. Coming back was exciting because when I first started there, the theater industry was slowly evolving. To come in now and see young actors confident and ready to do some serious damage was exciting! It’s important to realize you can never go home, though everyone longs for that. Where is your chosen home and chosen family? You choose things [that] make a home for you, and for what you want your history to be. We create our own homes wherever we go. I feel at home in the theater because that’s where the possibilities live—the fear, and the excitement.
Do you have any comforting words for our Asian and queer communities reeling from the Monterey Park shooting, the stabbing of a student in Indiana, and the Club Q shooting in Colorado?
Only that they are important, and these are the things that we have to still forge through. Things will always get in your way. You have no choice but to actually go through them. But by going through them, and going through them as a community, you are made stronger. You have a responsibility to find some of your brothers and sisters and figure out how to help them—as they can help you. The world is not done; we have to be strong.
I got this notion because when I came out and was ready to taste the world, people were dying [of AIDS complications]. A little intimacy could be a matter of life and death. That was 15 years of darkness. We muddled through it. We made it through, stronger. So when COVID came along, it was a different thing for us. We have to figure out these things in solidarity. They won’t take us down if we stand together. Stand strong, walk forward, don’t fall, and if you fall, get up. It’s not about falling, it’s about the art of getting up.
On the flip side of these sobering acts of violence, we are in an era where more Asian stories, creatives, and projects are receiving nods for excellence. I’m thinking about the historic spree of A24’s EEAAO, and our queen Michelle Yeoh. What would you like to see on the horizon?
I’d like to see more Asian actors and artists telling their own stories and being more visible. And I also hope there’s a way for Asians and non-Asians to come together and collaborate on works that inspire more stories that create understanding between communities. Sometimes our stories are not always harmonious—the 1992 L.A. riots, [for example]. But these stories are important for us to understand [in order to] become more united as different communities—as one. We have to figure out how we connect our communities, because I would hate to think we [can be so] easily divided by the straight white power structure. The only way for us to come together is to find understanding and empathy among our communities. We have to understand these historic tensions and move beyond them.
I’m really interested in your rituals as a writer and director. Can you describe your writing or your rehearsal processes, and if one informs the other?
That’s a vast question. Writing is very different. Writing doesn’t involve anybody; it’s you and your own shit. You sit alone, you figure out what you want to say, and you say it. The big question becomes: who are you saying it to, and why are you saying it? Once it’s written, everyone comes in to collaborate. This would be a traditional play, and not a devised work or something.
A director comes into a new play to interpret. I always say to my playwrights that my job is to make sure I give you the production you saw when you wrote the play, if not better. And my job is also to open up the play, to figure out what it’s trying to say, and to be of service to the playwright dramaturgically, and also to the actors. We are all ultimately in service of the story. Then you get a kinetic reaction with all the components: director, playwright, design, actors, audience—all coming together to tell a story. That’s why every night is very different: you’re acting on the audience that comes in to experience the work. I think after two and a half years of COVID, we are hungry to come back to the fire again, in front of storytellers telling stories.
I’m interested in new ways of telling stories, and awakening experiences that dare to change an audience’s perceptions of what storytelling is, or can be. What was the last thing you saw on a stage or screen that really wowed you?
It would have to be Everything Everywhere All at Once. I loved it because it kept going backward and forward. I loved that its form was challenging and adventurous, but at the heart of it was a story about Asian parents and their kids, and the possibilities of our lives. And that’s eternal! Seeing that on a plane two weeks ago was the best gift. I was blown away by what an adventurous and structurally invigorating movie it was. I wish theater was like that sometimes.
How can institutions strategize towards equity, and better serve disinvested populations authentically rather than performatively? And how can artists and communities support this sea change in calling these institutions, which most often get that good grant money, into action?
Another complicated question. It would be a huge paper. First and foremost, if the institutions are willing and ready for this kind of change, then sometimes the easiest thing is to select the leader. And yet when it’s on the institution to start adapting to the vision of the leader and giving them opportunities to succeed, it becomes a different question.
I can’t speak for the field, so I can only say this: Don’t go where you’re not invited. You know? What’s the point of changing something that can’t change? Everybody wants to disrupt something, to get into big theaters and change them, but then they realize they can’t. Why? Because it’s rooted in a certain structure, and sometimes the structure can’t change. So why bother trying to change it, instead of creating new ones, and a new slew of institutions that function much better? And once you have that structure, then the ossified theaters may be able to adapt and use it.
I was fortunate that I had a great chair and active board members who believe in the leadership and the change they can make. So I didn’t have blowback; I had a lot of challenges that I was able to handle with my board chair. An artistic director cannot change everything. You need a lot of partners to make change. And if it’s a bad relationship, isn’t it time to get out?
American theater has been asking the questions for the last 50 years. But what are they going to do to change? I don’t know the right answers. I think theaters are making the right steps in the direction toward equity, but it has to be top-down. And it takes time. My staff went from three women to 60 percent women, and two people of color into at least 50 percent people of color. And this went on to the actors we hired, and the staff. But some theaters aren’t seeing this kind of successful change because they have a lot of key stakeholders who aren’t willing to change, and change is hard.
Don’t think that a regional theater is the only place to do your art. Why compromise your craft, your vision, by running a theater that is going to stymie you? It’s more exciting to me to find the kind of space where you can do anything you want and find your audience. Imagine finding 10 people like you, and saying we want to start a theater company, [and deciding], “Here’s what we want and what we do not want.” And that is the beginning of a new theater company with a different structure. And if it succeeds, everybody can look at your structure and say, “My God, they did it! And now I can steal it.” And why not? You’ve created a good formula. I think right now, American theater is trying to find a new way of functioning, and they haven’t found it yet. So right now they’re still reliant on subscribers, or on a generation of older people who aren’t coming back after COVID. All these issues, because the theaters haven’t changed as much as the art form has changed. And the structure hasn’t caught up to the art.
Who do you look to for inspiration or restoration? Who or what is your “facial moisturizing mask” in these tired days?
Really? [Laughs] Is there such a thing? I look to my colleagues’ work and art, actually. I find great inspiration, solace, and restoration by experiencing other people’s work, and how they see the world. It excites and inspires me, yes, but it also comforts me to know we are all doing this together and in different ways. And now matter what happens, we are still doing it. I’m very inspired by older people who have done this—for decades, without money or recognition—because they believe the stories need to be told. And that’s my shining light.
I found an interview you did for The Advocate in 1999 with Don Shewey, as La Jolla was about to mount your play Wonderland. Do you remember that?
That’s right, I do remember that.
What would you tell a then 33-year-old Chay?
Live in the moment. There’s a lot of wonderful things. You can’t do everything, but do what you do well, and keep loved ones and friends always close by. That has been very helpful to me. And life is very short. I would just say, seize every moment, and it’s OK to fail. At 33, you’re not done. You’ve got 66 years left to go!
What’s something you haven’t crossed off your bucket list yet?
I’m happy where I am, and I am interested in how it slowly evolves. How can we age gracefully and figure out what it means to grapple with mortality? When will I [no longer] be able to tell stories, and what does it mean to do something different?
Don’t forget to do the things on your list. Do them! Go to Machu Picchu, go to Greece and dance with the boys! I’ve done those things already. You have one short life. What are you going to do? Live fully. Other people in other countries can’t do that.
What: Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band
When: Through February 12; ActOut LGBTQ pre-performance reception on February 2 at 6 p.m.
Where: The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Info: alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700 for tickets