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Obie winner Chay Yew on directing Cambodian Rock Band at Signature Theatre
A few years ago, when Lauren Yee approached Chay Yew about directing the world premiere of her play Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Repertory, he couldn't envision how it would work on stage. The puzzle of figuring it out is exactly why he signed on. "I always look at a work and ask myself, did I cross an ocean to do this?" he says. "Was it worth giving up my friends and family to do this?"
Born and raised in Singapore, Yew moved to the U.S. to prove to his disapproving family that he could, in fact, make a living as a theatre artist. Initially a playwright, he switched his focus to directing in the '00s, and became the artistic director of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater in 2011. There he helmed a number of shows that made it to New York, including Oedipus El Rey and Mojada, as well as the world premiere of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton three years before a different production of the play ran on Broadway. "I didn't talk to my family for 13 years to prove I could do this," Yew admits.
But he says projects like Cambodian Rock Band, which he's now directing at Signature Theatre, justify his sacrifice. The Cambodian genocide haunts the characters in Lee's time-hopping play. In 2008, a young Cambodian-American named Neary (Courtney Reed) is helping to prosecute a Khmer Rouge war criminal (Francis Jue) in the country's capital of Phnom Penh. She is shocked when her father, Chum (Joe Ngo), a survivor of that violent era, makes a surprise visit to the homeland he fled decades earlier. As the play ping-pongs between the '70s and the 21st century, father and daughter grapple with trauma, shame and intergenerational tension, while bonding over fish massages and rock music.
"I love doing a play that waltzes from time to time and setting to setting as opposed to a play that sits two hours in a living room with people talking and eating—because that will just kill me," Yew says with a laugh. Cambodian Rock Band is "a family play and a history play and a rock and roll show."
Classic Cambodian rock songs from the '60s and '70s as well as contemporary tunes by the band Dengue Fever are played live on stage and are an integral part of the narrative. "You can kill a culture, you can kill the people, you can kill a country, but the art will always survive," says Yew, noting that the country's psychedelic surfer rock scene was tragically cut short by the Khmer Rouge.
As a child in Singapore, Yew was well aware of that murderous regime—he remembers flipping through newspapers filled with images of prisoners and corpses. That left an indelible impression and made Yew sensitive to how certain material in the play might impact the cast, especially Ngo, whose parents are Cambodian refugees who escaped the Khmer Rouge.
Yew has spent much of his career collaborating with artists of color, and at Victory Gardens he launched a number of initiatives that championed diversity, equity and inclusion. "When we own our stories, it begins with producers, then goes all the way down with storytellers, playwrights, directors and actors," he says. "We need to have more Asian Americans and people of color in positions of power to produce the work. And they have to share the power."
To that end, Yew is leaving Victory Gardens at the end of this season. "If I had stayed any longer, I would be a hypocrite to my principles," he says.
As for his relatives, Yew eventually reconciled with them. When he entered his family's living room, his father pulled out a scrapbook filled with articles about Yew's theatrical achievements. According to Yew, that was his dad's way of saying, "I don't have to worry about you. I'm proud of you."
Caroline Cao is a writer, comic writer, playwright and screenwriter. When she's not working on a script or fan fiction, she's experimenting with pasta. Follow her at @Maximinalist. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Moses Villarama, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed and Abraham Kim in Cambodian Rock Band. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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