San Diego

Award-Winning Playwright, UCSD Alum Brings ‘Cambodian Rock Band' to Playhouse

The San Diego premiere of "Cambodian Rock Band" can trace its origins back to America's Finest City, back when award-winning playwright Lauren Yee was a student at UCSD.

Playwright Lauren Yee's "Cambodian Rock Band" can trace its origins back to San Diego, many years before the piece first received its world premiere. 

Yee, a graduate of UC San Diego's MFA Playwriting Program, was living in San Diego when a friend suggested they go see a band perform at a street festival in San Diego. 

The playwright and her friends almost missed the band's performance at the street festival, Yee recalled. But the group made it right on time. 

When she first heard Dengue Fever's music, she immediately fell in love. 

"It's infectious and pop-y, but wild and new," Yee said. "It's something that I loved when I first heard it." 

It's this initial love that later transformed into "Cambodian Rock Band," an epic rock concert and play all in one featuring the music of Dengue Fever.

The piece, written by Lee, is one of the most-produced playwrights in America right now, tells the story of a young woman trying to piece together her family history, decades after her father fled Cambodia. 

But the play didn't come together all at once. After that initial performance, Lee said, she dove deep into the rabbit hole and learned all she could about Dengue Fever. 

"Basically, for a long time, I was really obsessed with Dengue Fever's music and the Cambodian rock scene," Yee said. 

It was years later before the right opportunity arose. 

Fast forward to 2015, when South Coast Repertory Theater commissioned Yee to write a play for them. The theater wanted Yee to draw inspiration from around Orange County to see what may inspire her. 

She stumbled upon Dengue Fever almost by accident: they were playing a show in Long Beach. Along the way, she kept running into Cambodian culture and influences. 

"It was all these coincidences," Yee said. "I was like, 'Oh, I think I know what my play is going to be about.'" 

The piece of work that came out of that experience is almost indescribable, Yee said. 

On the one hand, it is a story about one family's past and the struggle between generations. 

But on the other hand, it is also a story about the power of music and art and why people would risk their lives for that. 

"It's a story about survivors, the resilience of music, and it's one of those darkly funny, hilarious, poignant, painfully funny times," Yee said.

"You describe Cambodian Rock Band to someone and they'd be like, 'that sounds like a terrible night out,'" Yee added. "But in reality, it's the most transcendent experience." 

The San Diego premiere of Cambodian Rock Band runs at La Jolla Playhouse from Nov. 12 to Dec. 15. Buy tickets here

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