The Defiant Ones: ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ Stands Witness to History — and Reclaims It for Our Time

Lauren Yee’s play uncovers the country’s surf-rock scene of the 1960s and ’70s and includes songs by L.A. band Dengue Fever.

What happens when the music stops? What happens when it vanishes, is banned, or even becomes punishable by death? That’s one of the hooks that draws audiences into Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, by turns a boisterous, solemn, and periodically campy new Off-Broadway production that gets its ya-ya’s out — and lets audiences do the same. It reveals the story of one survivor’s journey through the horror of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, which began after the U.S. withdrew troops from Cambodia in the spring of 1975 and the country fell to Pol Pot (a.k.a. Brother Number One) and his antithesis-of-merry band of communists.

The play tells a story that has become far too common about surviving mass arrests, labor camps, and disappearances through both history and headlines about more recent regimes — Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Chinese treatment of the Uighurs, and the massacre of the Banunu in Congo — that defiantly celebrates freedom of choice, artistic creation, and, in the words of this playwright, “the Cambodian surf-rock scene of the Sixties and Seventies.”

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