Cambodian Rock Band explores an untold story in a fresh way

Claire Neiberg | Staff Writer


Cambodian Rock Band rocked the City Theatre Company’s stage in Pittsburgh’s Southside. I saw this play on Sunday, Sept. 15 as part of my Social Justice in Educational Settings class in the School of Education. Directed by Marti Lyons, the performance was as electrifying as its title, as it creatively tells the story of the Cambodian genocide through the relationship of a father and daughter.

Going into the theatre, I had high expectations for what I was about to see because I am passionate about history and always find it interesting when history and entertainment are brought together. However, I did have my doubts because I was afraid upbeat music and flashing lights would make too much of a spectacle about a horrendous time in history which caused many to suffer.

The play tells the story of Neary (Aja Wiltshire). A young, enterprising woman, she is both the lead singer of her rock band but also an intern working to uncover the harsh realities of the Cambodian genocide. When her Cambodian father, Chum (Greg Watanbe), comes to visit her unexpectedly, she uncovers the dark tale of her family history.

Lauren Yee, the playwright, stated in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, “In so many instances, when you hear stories about genocide or any kind of atrocity, your mind goes educational. All the pictures in your mind suddenly go black and white, sepia-toned, very sad. And I didn’t want to tell a story about victims. I wanted to tell a story about survivors.”

Because genocide is, needless to say,  a far from comical event, Yee crafted her play by weaving the comedic lines into the relationships between the individual characters. The aspects of the play that were heavily based on the events of the genocide were taken seriously and even involved realistic fake blood and gunshots to amplify the effect on the audience.

While the sets and costumes were fairly simple, the show was a brilliant work of art. The music was original, catchy and had the audience singing along in a standing ovation at curtain call. As a pre-service teacher, theatre is of great importance to me, as it inspires us to educate our students to think outside the box and utilize the materials we already have to create art.

The most influential aspect of Cambodian Rock Band was the Asian representation. The Cambodian genocide is not commonly taught in American schools and Asians are not heavily represented in the media. However, it was incredibly heartwarming to see an entire auditorium of people gather to hear the story of an underrepresented minority. It also inspired me to implement diversity into my future classroom through the arts.

I highly recommend going to see Cambodian Rock Band before the final show on Oct. 6. The play was a stunning example of how the arts inspire us to be braver than we can imagine. In two hours, the play embodied the concepts of a rock band, comedic interjections and familial relationships. It left my class in tears of both joy and sadness, as it unveiled the chilling, and underrepresented history of the Cambodian genocide. It gave us all a point of inspiration to create a socially just classroom environment in the foreseeable future.