Playwright Lauren Yee is hot, hot, hot! According to American Theatre Magazine, she’s the second most-produced playwright in the country this season, and “Cambodian Rock Band” — coming to La Jolla Playhouse Nov. 12-Dec. 15, 2019 — is on the list of the top 10 most produced plays in the United States. It has earned her the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Award and the Horton Foote Prize for outstanding new play, and she has been rewarded for her body of work at the highest levels.
This year alone, her honors include receiving a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and being chosen as one of six Doris Duke Artists recognized for outstanding contributions to theater, an award that comes with a hefty $275,000. She’s completed scripts for Apple TV and Netflix, and has upcoming commissions from (among others) L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse, New York’s Lincoln Center, and yes — La Jolla Playhouse.
“Luckily, they’re not all due at the same time,” she said in a pre-show phone interview with the Light, with the sounds of another recent production in the background — her 10-month-old daughter, Zadie.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Yee had one of her earliest plays, “Over the Asian Airwaves,” produced at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2005, when she was among the winners of Playwrights Project’s contest for California Young Writers. She was 18 then; this year, she was one of the judges. Here’s how Playwrights Project executive director Cecilia Kouma recalls their first contact: “Lauren sent two scripts that made it into the final round that year, and both were so compelling, it was difficult to decide which one to produce!”
Yee went on to Yale, the MFA program at UC San Diego, and a stellar career. “Cambodian Rock Band” premiered last March at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa and comes to La Jolla after a long run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with all but one of the original cast and the original director, Chay Yew, still on board.
A big part of the play is music, with five of the six actors doubling as the band, performing 1960s Khmer pop and contemporary Cambodian/indie rock songs by L.A.-based hit-makers Dengue Fever.
Khmer pop — a Cambodian-flavored mix of rock, soul and Latin sounds from the West — swept the country from the 1960s until 1975, when the brutal Khmer Rouge took power, silenced the music and the musicians, and began the annihilation of almost two million people in less than four years.
This is the period the play is concerned with, going back and forth between the year 2008 (when former Khmer Rouge leaders were starting to be tried for crimes against humanity) and 1975, before and after the takeover. But “Cambodian Rock Band” is not a history lesson; it has some very dark moments, but it’s full of humor, surprises and buoyant rock music.
It’s billed as “a story about survivors, the resilient bond of family and the enduring power of music.” As the playwright said: “It’s really about a father and a daughter — a father with a secret and a daughter who desperately needs to know what it is. Whether or not your parents are alive, there’s always something they do not tell you about the past; we all go through that journey. The joy of this play is uncovering the history together.”
The joy of this play is that it’s a terrific piece of theater. My husband and I saw it last year, at South Coast Rep. We can’t wait to see it again, close to home.
• IF YOU GO: “Cambodian Rock Band” is onstage at La Jolla Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre, on the UC San Diego campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive in La Jolla, Nov. 12-Dec. 15, 2019. Tickets from $39. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org
• Special Performance: At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5, the cast will perform several songs from the show as an opener to Dengue Fever’s ArtPower concert at UCSD Price Center East Ballroom. Tickets to this concert: In person at the UCSD Box Office, located on the plaza level of Price Center West, or call (858) 534-8497 or visit artpower.ucsd.edu