What first got Lauren Yee was the music.
It was several years ago, in San Diego, that the up-and-coming playwright initially experienced Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based band that revived the psychedelic surf sounds of the little-known Cambodian rock scene of the 1960s and ’70s.
Yee, who is Chinese-American, was born in San Francisco and wasn’t familiar with that piece of music history. But after doing a little research – how the scene and its musicians were killed off, literally, by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late ’70s – she was hooked.
“Immediately I was like, ‘This is a play of some sort, that somebody should write,’” she said.
Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” premiered in 2018. It makes its East Coast debut this week as City Theatre’s season-opening production, and the first of Yee’s plays to be staged in Pittsburgh.
Yee calls the show “a play with music” – classic Cambodian pop and the original songs of Dengue Fever, played live by the cast of six. It tells the story of a man who survived the Khmer Rouge, and after 30 years returns while attempting to reconnect with his Cambodian-American daughter. Meanwhile, the daughter is prosecuting a man who ran a Khmer Rouge prison.
The play is “also a comedy,” said Yee, speaking by phone from New York City. “It’s a lot of things!”
Yee is an award-winning talent whose work has been produced at theaters nationally, including “King of the Yees” and “The Great Leap.” The City Theatre production is the eighth for “Cambodian Rock Band” -- an impressive number for a show that premiered less than two years ago.
“Cambodian Rock Band” won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, for scripts that premiered professionally outside of New York City.
The City staging is directed by Marti Lyons, and stars Eileen Doan, Albert Park, Christopher Thomas Pow, Peter Sipla, Greg Watanabe, and Aja Wilshire.
“It’s a rock concert, it’s a father-daughter story, it is an incredible tale of survival, and the power of music, and basically like what would you do to stay alive,” said Yee.
While the play’s story is told against the backdrop of an historic national tragedy in Southeast Asia, the themes it explores are universal.
“Cambodian rock band is a story about joy. It’s a story about survivors,” she said. “And it is a story about family, about the secrets that we keep from our loved ones because we don’t know quite how to share it. About the difficult truths that make up distinct parts of our histories and our personalities and who we are. And I think it’s about unleashing those ghosts if we truly want to connect.”
"Cambodian Rock Band" runs at City Theatre through Oct. 6. Ticket information is here.
WESA receives funding from Pittsburgh City Theatre.