“Not often. That was only my second play I’ve been to,” said Prenz Sa-Ngoun, a Khmer American community member. “It was good to see so many people in the community present, I was in the 2 p.m. show so the event was [a] good place to digest the show.”
Sa-Ngoun came to see Cambodian Rock Band during Khmer Community Day, hosted by Khmer Community Seattle King County (KCSKC) on October 7 ACT Theatre in the Bullitt Cabaret space. Like many other local Khmer Americans, this was one of the few times he had ever attended a play.
“I think I was a child the last time I saw a play,” said Lenee Son, a graduate student at University of Washington (UW) who moved to Seattle from Vancouver, British Columbia, for school.
Cambodian Rock Band, written by Lauren Yee, follows the story of Chum during his life as a young adult playing in a rock band around the time of the Khmer Republic in the 1970s. The story follows his journey through the eventual fall of Cambodia and into the rule of the Khmer Rouge, all the way to the 2000s during the trial of high ranking Khmer Rouge officials.
The play puts on full display Cambodia’s golden age of music during the post-colonial era of the 1960s and 1970s and the Cambodian Genocide.
Following the show, Sa-Nguon and Son attended រាត្រីរាំវង់/Retrei Romvong, a celebration of Khmer Community Day. The event featured របាំព្រះរាជទ្រព្យ (Robam) or Khmer classical dance performances by Khmer Amarak Performing Arts, some នំអន្សម/nom ansom, a banana leaf wrap of sticky rice created by KCSKC community elders, and dancing to a live set by DJ Sabzi.
“It’s a little taste of a unique event that KCSKC puts on for our elders every month. So we’ve adopted it for [this event]” said Stephanie Ung, Co-Executive Director of KCSCK.
Khmer Community Day was part of a broader campaign to center and create access to theater for the regional Khmer community, involving several Khmer-based community organizations like KCSKC, the Khmer Alumni Association, and the Khmer Advocacy and Advancement Group (KhAAG), all in partnership with Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre.
The initiative included discounted or free tickets for Khmer community members, transportation to the theater, and Khmer language interpretation.
“I feel like there are barriers for the Khmer community to access theater,” said Son.
“Arts have always been a part of Khmer culture, but visiting a theater here can be expensive. There’s also a lack of cultural relevance in theater. It’s a rarity to see Southeast Asian or Cambodian stories or narratives represented.”
Khmer culture has a rich history of theater, with genres such as ល្ខោនណាំងស្បែក/Lakhoun Naing Sbaek, or grand shadow theatre, an art included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and ល្ខោនខោល/Lakhoun Khol, or masked dance-drama. Both forms date back to the Angkor Era.
“When I think about whether or not my parents would go see a play at a theater, I already know the answer,” said Son. “Like many Cambodian immigrants, they work hard to get by and I don’t see them spending $100 to see a play that doesn’t reflect the stories or experiences they grew up with.”
Acknowledging the history of inaccessibility to white-led artistic institutions like theater for Black and Brown communities, both The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre sought to change this reality by producing Cambodian Rock Band.
“This was the first time we hosted other performers as part of our engagement programming,” said ACT Theatre’s Artistic Associate, Education & Engagement Shana Bestock, whose role was created this year. “The level of investment from KCSKC, KAA, KhAAG, and other community partners was extraordinary — how much the show meant to them, how much the intergenerational dialogue and dancing meant, how deep the need in the community is for this kind.”
For both institutions, Cambodian Rock Band marks the biggest cultural event produced in collaboration with and in support of the community, explained Aviona Rodriguez Brown, the Associate Director of Engagement at 5th Avenue Theatre.
“The community engagement used to be solely outreach for our institution, and now we’re being more of an ethical community engagement team. We’re really doing things for the first time,” added Ariel Gomez Bradler, Director of Education of Engagement at The 5th Ave Theatre.
“Every time we’ve done this show, we’ve challenged theaters to really come out and put their money where their mouth is when it comes to producing this show,” said Joe Ngo, who plays the main character of Chum. “I’ve written to every theater that has produced this show, and I’m like, ‘I need you to pay attention. If you are going to do this show, you must reach out to the community that this show is [about] because they’re the ones who need it the most.”
Ngo, who is of Khmer Teochew descent, attended graduate school at the UW, and explained that in some ways, Cambodian Rock Band was born in Seattle when playwright Yee first brought him the script in 2014.
“It was the first time I ever experienced a Cambodian American play that is so close to my own family history,” he said.
As he embarked on the latest national run of the show, Ngo enlisted the help of Khmer Alumni Association (KAA), centered in Long Beach, California — home to the largest Khmer community outside of Cambodia — as cultural advisors.
“Following the Cambodian Rock Band play came naturally to us as we saw firsthand the response community members had,” said KAA member Pita Huot. “The community, especially those who are second generation Cambodian Americans, need to see the play. Lauren Yee wrote this play for us.”
Huot attended an early run of Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Repertory in 2018, and was part of the first iteration of Khmer Community Day after seeing the encouraging community response. KAA even hosted its first Khmer Student Day event to organize trips to see the show.
“Over 200 Cambodian students, their friends, and family went to see the play that day, and then every day after that for the last eight remaining days of the run,” said Huot. “We waited for hours so we could stand in line to purchase standby tickets minutes before the start of each show.”
Ngo said that this show reflects a larger shift in the theater at-large, speculating that the entertainment industry as a whole is struggling because it refuses to change its model and the stories it is telling. But the change is also an opportunity to expand horizons.
“A play like Cambodia Rock Band has garnered national attention,” he said. “We’re literally right on the frontlines of challenging the narrative. By challenging the theaters, we really challenge what it is representationally for the communities.”
Ung agreed, and added that building a bridge of access and trust in an inclusive and culturally revitalizing way is also important. “It’s not just about making sure the most number of tickets go to Khmer folks. It’s [also] about when they arrive, what are all the details, what are all the things that people who don’t usually go to the theater might not know.”
After receiving community feedback, headsets with interpretation into Khmer were made available for guests whose first language wasn’t English.
“Language access is super important,” said Ung. “Elders just getting the gist of a story that they survived is not cool. It’s their story that they lived through, and then when they’re in the theater, they don’t even get to really like, fully understand it if they don’t have a good grasp of English.”
Bestock knows that there’s an implicit bias of theater-goers and that there’s a lot of work to be done still, but is committed to working with the community members she met through the collaboration to address barriers, limit harm, and create authentic cross-cultural connection.
“This show does well in these white institutions,” said Rodriguez Brown. “If you continue to produce shows without ethically including us in the community-side, then the show will fall flat because you’re only selling it to the same people that have been appreciating whatever other art you put on. It’s important that ethical community work is involved in any show that is culturally-specific.”