PHNOM PENH: When actor Joe Ngo was growing up, his parents told him stories about the time they were labour camp prisoners under the Khmer Rouge regime.
One in particular stuck with him. It was about the time that his mother witnessed a prison guard killing a young boy for stealing fruit.
“He cuts this kid open with a machete, takes out his gallbladder and eats it in front of people. My mom said it was the most horrific thing she’d ever seen,” Ngo recalls with a grimace.
Horror stories about the Cambodian genocide, which killed about two million people from 1975 to 1979, are common.
The Khmer Times said what was rarely told was how people like Ngo’s parents endured these traumatic experiences and reclaimed their humanity later on.
That story of survival is what Ngo is currently telling every night in a play called Cambodian Rock Band by playwright Lauren Yee, at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre in New York.
Cambodian Rock Band moves back and forth in time between the 1970s and 2008.
In the modern-day, a Cambodian-American goes to Cambodia to prosecute a Khmer Rouge official and in the process, she also finds out more about her father, Chum, who is a survivor but had never talked about his story.
The play then flashes back to 1975 when Chum had a rock band.
Ngo plays Chum and to him, the story was “between a father and a daughter: a father who has secrets that he’s keeping, and a daughter who is trying to make sense of who she is in the world through her father’s pain”.
When Yee met Ngo in 2013, she was working on the play but wasn’t happy with the drafts.
“There kept being plays about victims, which was not something that excited me,” Yee said, adding that meeting Ngo and hearing him tell his family’s stories was the key to unlocking the work.
During the Khmer Rouge genocide, 90 per cent of Cambodia’s artist population were murdered. So in creating a play about that period, Yee wanted to show the vibrancy of the country’s culture.
The show is performed by a cast of six Asian-American actors who act, sing and play musical instruments.
“If Cambodian Rock Band is about an oppressive regime that’s trying to wipe music and musicians off the face of the Earth, the most revolutionary thing you can do is show that music,” said Yee.
While Cambodian Rock Band discusses tragedy, it’s not about victims. It’s about survival and resilience, and how music can be a way to overcome trauma, heal wounds and connect generations.