Popular culture—or at least English-language popular culture—has been rather silent about the Khmer Rouge. Apart from The Killing Fields, a British film starring mostly British and American actors, there have been few onscreen attempts to reconcile with Pol Pot’s regime. Oddly, Angelina Jolie has figured in two, first as an actor and then as a director. The latter, First They Killed My Father, is based on Loung Ung’s fairly well-read memoir about her childhood as the daughter of high-ranking government official who suddenly finds herself separated from her siblings and training as a child soldier. Still, these are exceptions to the rule.
Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, then, begins the long-awaited work of addressing the intergenerational trauma wrought by Pol Pot. Where The Killing Fields and First They Killed My Father both focus on the immediate victims of the Khmer Rouge, Yee follows their children instead. Her central character is Neary (Courtney Reed), a Cambodian-American working for an NGO that is assisting in the first prosecution of a Khmer Rouge leader for mass murder: Comrade Duch (Francis Jue), a mathematics teacher and head of the infamous S-21 prison. Of the twenty thousand S-21 imprisoned, there are only seven known survivors. Neary suspects she has found an eighth.
But her work—and her love life—are interrupted when her father (Joe Ngo), a survivor of the genocide, arrives from the United States with a maxed-out credit card and an aggressively zealous approach to tourism. He wants Neary to come home, and in order to convince her, he tells his story, which begins with his role as guitarist for the eponymous rock band.
Cambodian Rock Band does a nice job of integrating music and drama, and the cast is quite good. Jue, whose Duch also narrates the play, is particularly magnetic: nimble, cagey, and puckish as he delights in his power: “Whoever tells the story,” he smirks, “tells the truth.” Yee, however, never fully confronts the sticky implications of this delight. Duch is presented as a morally ambiguous, almost rougish figure, bearing a fair bit of resemblance in this respect to the Emcee in Kaner and Ebb’s Cabaret. No doubt, this is because he is holding the mic.
But the historical Duch, for me at least, is not morally ambiguous. Morally complex, perhaps, but unambiguously immoral. Cambodian Rock Band fails when it misses the chance to implicate both author and audience for the pleasure we take in Duch’s charisma and dry humor. In the second act, for example, he mentions that it took nearly forty years to prosecute any of the perpetrators. “Cambodian time!” he squawks, riffing on a now-familiar expression used throughout the play. At the performance I attended, this was met with laughter that was not nearly nervous enough.