The Story Behind the Photo: "Cambodian Rock Band"

Tania Thompson
 | Nov 05, 2020
Cambodian Rock Band
Brooke Ishibashi and Joe Ngo in Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee (2017, world premiere). Photo by Debora Robinson.

About Cambodian Rock Band

Part comedy, part mystery, part rock concert, this thrilling story by playwright Lauren Yee toggles back and forth in time, as a father and daughter face the music of the past. Neary, a young Cambodian American has found evidence that could finally put away the Khmer Rouge’s chief henchman. But her work is far from done. When her Dad, Chum, shows up unannounced—his first return to Cambodia since fleeing 30 years ago—it’s clear this isn’t just a pleasure trip. Cambodian Rock Band has gone on to numerous other productions around the country with one—at New York’s Signature Theatre—garnering a prestigious Obie Award for Joe Ngo as Chum. A national tour has been announced.

Actor Joe Ngo was part of the 6-person cast that worked over the course of two years to bring to life the world premiere of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, an SCR commission. After workshops and a 2016 reading at the Pacific Playwrights Festival, the play received its world premiere production at SCR in 2018, to much acclaim. Broadway World said, “Yee constructs a riveting play that's part mystery, part history lesson, and part unabashed jukebox musical concert. …[a] drama which can go from haunting to devastating. For a world premiere piece, the play feels close to perfect.” Ngo selected the above photo as an important moment from the play.

What moment does this depict?

Joe Ngo: ​This is where Neary (played by Brooke Ishibashi), in growing irritation, is attempting to disseminate the reasons for why her father Chum (played by me, Joe Ngo) has ambushed her in a surprise visit to Cambodia. While in the midst of her incredibly important NGO [non-profit, non-governmental organization] work, Neary ends up having to deal with the whirlwind that is her father.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

JN: The most interesting aspect about this first scene is that right away we understand the dynamic of this father-daughter relationship. Director Chay Yew worked with Brooke and me to develop a sharpness between us, which encouraged a rapid-fire, unspoken undercurrent of energy that would come out much like a ping-pong match while we were onstage.

What’s the power about this moment?

JN: Look at our positioning, blocking and expressions, and notice how alive in the space we are as actors. We’re literally on the edge of our seats, constantly ready to redirect, force or avoid conversations, while always sharply focused on each other, ready to pounce. Even when my character, Chum, is joking around with Neary, you can see from the drive in her eyes that this scene has happened before somewhere else, at some other point in their lives together: it is the epitome of their relationship.

Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

JN: While Brooke and I are the subject of this photo, so much of the credit should be given to the design and production teams behind every little detail that made this scene so memorable. And even though the audience was able to see the band's peformance platform behind “the hotel room” part of the set, ​the design details invite us to believe that we are in an entirely different space—from our shoes, to my fanny pack, to the Wayne Gretzky book sitting on the hotel nightstand, to the radio-alarm-clock—and we are absorbed into a very clear time and space with very distinct characters. ​Subconsciously, notably in reference to the floor tiles and the file folders​: Chay [Yew, director] and the designers already, in this very early scene in the play, ​had started to trickle in hints about what's to come: that in no way should the audience start to get comfortable.