Nightmare or revelation? It’s Cambodian Rock Band, and it rocks

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ABOVE: The cast of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Joseph Ngo, Abraham Kim, Geena Quintos and Moses Villarama. BELOW: Ngo and Francis Jue. Photos by Lynn Lane/Berkeley Rep

Cambodian Rock Band is such a unique show that it’s hard to describe. It’s the most uplifting story about human atrocities you can imagine. You could say it’s a play with music, but the music – performed live by the cast – is such an integral part of the story (and the emotion of it all), that you could call it a concert with play. There’s genocide and the uplift of great live music.

Whatever it is, it’s powerful and moving and a joy (and, truth be told, a terror) to behold on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. The exuberant cast keeps up with every tonal shift, time shift and musical cue in playwright Lauren Yee’s compelling story, and the experience slams the audience this way and that in the best possible way.

The roots of Cambodian Rock Band go back to 2016 and to Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works program. From there, the show has been produced in a lot of places – Oregon Shakespeare Festival, South Coast Rep, off Broadway to name a few – and it’s that off-Broadway production from the Signature Theatre that is making the rounds of major regional theaters, including Berkeley Rep.

Director Chay Yew dexterously blends all the disparate elements of Yee’s script into something wholly original. The show begins as a rock concert circa 1975 in Phnom Penh. The five-piece band is Cyclos, and they’re caught up in the excitement of recording their first album. Then everything changes. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot comes to power, launching a horrifying reign that ultimately led to the death of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. Amid the totalitarian terror, education, music and art were outlawed, and those who practiced such dangerous trades were systematically dispatched.

From the opening concert, we bounce to Phnom Penh in 2008 and the first war crimes trial related to the Pol Pot regime. A young Cambodian-American woman, Neary (Geena Quintos) is part of the legal team bringing Commrade Duch to justice after his stint as director of the infamous S-21 prison, which is estimated to have slaughtered 20,000 people. When the prison was liberated in 1979, only seven people appeared to have survived. But, as Neary discovers, there is a possible eighth survivor, and she needs to locate him so he can testify.

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Just as her trial is about to begin, Neary’s father, Chum (Joe Ngo) shows up and wants to bring her back to the U.S. He fled the Khmer regime and doesn’t want his daughter mired in all that horror from 30 years before. But she is insistent, and the father-daughter struggle will delve into some tangled family history that is played out in flashbacks.

To say that Ngo as Chum is extraordinary really isn’t saying enough. He is called upon to sing and play guitar in the band, play the young Chum navigating the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and play the older Chum, a husband and father and American who would rather not re-live his Cambodian past. By turns funny, sympathetic and devastatingly dramatic, Ngo brings an astonishing level of energy and depth to his character’s remarkable journey.

Quintos as Neary is a defiant but sympathetic daughter following her own quest for justice, but she’s also a powerhouse singer in the band. Moses Villarama plays characters in both of the play’s eras and plucks a mean bass, while Abraham Kim wallops the drums (and some smaller roles) and Jane Lui tackles the keys (and prisoners at S-21).

Former Bay Area resident (but still Bay Area favorite) Francis Jue interrupts the opening concert to act as a sort of host for the evening and to guide us back and forth in time until he becomes a major player in the drama. Nobody can convey more charm or more menace than Jue, who is truly masterful in this show. And not for nothing, he plays a mean cowbell.

Unlike something like Life Is Beautiful the warmhearted(?) Roberto Benigni comedy(?) about the Holocaust, Cambodian Rock Band is not sappy or easy. Yee isn’t softening Pol Pot’s genocide in any way. The use of music – something the Khmer Rouge considered so dangerous they banned it – and specifically rock music (originals by the band Dengue Fever plus some vintage Cambodian surf songs and other period tunes) emphasizes the raging glory of humanity – and the human connection that art creates – even in the face of humanity at its very worst. An evening that begins as a concert ends as a transcendent event that feels enormous and full of hope.

Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band continues through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 2 1/2 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $21-$122 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Story lifts ACT’s Elevator to great heights

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Joseph Anthony Foronda is El Elevator and Julius Ahn is Guāng in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of the musical Stuck Elevator at the Geary Theater. Below: Ahn as Guāng feels the pressure of being stuck in an elevator for days on end. Photos by Kevin Berne

It’s hard to imagine a better production of Stuck Elevator than the one now on view at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Production values and performance levels are superlative, and the show makes a forceful impression.

This world premiere by Bryon Au Yong (music) and Aaron Jafferis scores major points for originality. In telling the story of immigrants in America, they take their inspiration from the real-life tale of a Chinese restaurant delivery man, Kuang Chen, who was trapped for 81 hours in a stuck elevator in a Bronx highrise.

Their story sticks to the major details from this 2005 incident, but their protagonist is Guāng, an illegal immigrant who paid $120,000 to be smuggled from China in a cargo ship. He works endless hours making minimal pay to send home to his wife and young son and to pay down his massive debt.

The telling of Guāng’s story is the most powerful aspect of this 81-minute musical. The central performance by Julius Ahn is extraordinary for its vocal purity, stamina and emotional heft. We like Guāng almost immediately, and that’s due to Ahn and his low-key charm. Over the course of Guāng’s imprisonment, we watch as he registers panic, frustration, fear and despair among many other emotions.

The central tension of this tale, aside from the lack of food and water in the stuck elevator, is Guāng’s reluctance to push the emergency button that connects him directly with 911 and the police. As an undocumented worker, he would be deported, and his already troublesome life would become more so. He also panics when he sees the security camera in the elevator roof. He even fears that security might see him…and that they might not. He hides in a corner of the elevator out of the camera’s field of vision until he figures out that the elevator malfunction has rendered the camera inoperable.

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So much pressure contained in such a small space. The dominant emotion conveyed in this short but intense show is anxiety. So much weighs on Guāng’s shoulders that it’s hard not to feel the enormous pressure on his behalf. From Guāng’s point of view, he’s not ticking off the hours in the elevator as much as he’s thinking about how much money he’s losing each hour by not working. Au Yong’s music, under the music direction of Dolores Duran-Cefalu, conveys this anxiety more acutely than any other emotion.

Very soon after Guāng realizes that his predicament is not going to improve any time soon, the stage outside the elevator shaft (the marvelous set is by Daniel Ostling) begins to fill with Guāng’s memories, fantasies and nightmares, of which he has many. There was the nightmarish crossing from China, the beastly Boss’s Wife back at the Happy Dragon restaurant and two splashy, colorful interludes – one involving Atlantic City and the promise of easy jackpots and the other a wrestling match between El Elevator and “Big Guāng.”

Such episodes are really there to give the audience the kind of mental and emotional break that the real guy stuck in the elevator never had. While we have music and scenes played out for our entertainment, he only had four close walls and silence.

The supporting cast, which includes Raymond J. Lee, Marie-France Arcilla, Joel Perez and Joseph Anthony Foronda in multiple roles, is fantastic, and all have powerful, dynamic voices. But director Chay Yew never lets us forget that this is all about Guāng.

Of course we want him to escape the elevator, but he’s escaping into what kind of life? A life of being worked like a slave? A life of being mugged in hallways? A life of having to sell your cell phone just to appease debtors? If the goal here is to highlight the plight of the immigrant, the people we interact with on a regular basis, then Stuck Elevator is a huge success.

My only complaint is that I was never able to connect with Au Yong’s music in any way other than intellectually. I appreciated its beauty at certain points and liked how effectively it conveyed anxiety and passion and compassion and even worked in a little hip-hop and rap. But I missed a melody that I could grab hold of, a song with an emotional apex and a real ending. It’s a sophisticated score an an unconventional musical to be sure, but I longed for a moment or two of something simpler and more directly emotional. More conventional.

But when it all comes together, as it does in a scene that begins with the harrowing recollection of a mugging, morphs into a violent fantasia and ends with a betrayal of bodily functions, Stuck Elevator is a bold, imaginative creation that expressively tells the kind of story we need to hear more often.

American Conservatory Theater’s Stuck Elevator continues through April 28 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Busy Chay Yew gets creatively Stuck at ACT

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Chay Yew, in addition to directing shows at the country’s top theaters, is also the artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. He is directing the world premiere of the musical Stuck Elevator at American Conservatory Theater. Photo courtesy of Victory Gardens Theater. Below: Joel Perez (left) is Marco and Julius Ahn is Guang in Stuck Elevator. Photo by Kevin Berne.



How does Chay Yew manage to be the artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater and hopscotch the country as an in-demand director?

“Consummate scheduling,” Yew says.

He’s in town to direct the world premiere of Stuck Elevator for American Conservatory Theater. This inventive new musical, with music by Byron Au Yong and a libretto by Aaron Jafferis, is based on the true story of Ming Kuang Chan, a deliveryman for Happy Dragon Chinese restaurant, who got stuck in a Bronx elevator for nearly three days in 2005.

It’s an intriguing concept — one guy in an elevator, and it’s a musical.

Yew, whom Bay Area audiences know as a playwright (Porcelain at Theatre Rhinoceros in the early ’90s, Red at TheatreWorks in 2004) and director (Alec Mapa’s I Remember Mapa in 1998 and Dael Orlandersmith’s Black and Blue Boys/Broken Men at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last summer), knew composer Yong from his days in Seattle and was intrigued with the idea of what was originally a solo show.

“All these other voices kept creeping in,” Yew says on the phone before heading into a rehearsal at ACT. “It became interesting to explore the life of this person, not just in his present reality but also outside of it with his memories and fantasies. We started to hear the hymn of the immigrant in America.”

By the time Yew joined the Stuck Elevator creative team as director in 2009, Yong and Jafferis had already been working on the piece for several years. Readings and workshops, including some valuable time at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab, led to a five-character theater piece that is part opera, part hip-hop, part avant-garde theater piece.

“I had always hoped the show would find some space like The Marsh, but I really never thought it would play the regional theaters because they wouldn’t know how to platform it,” Yew says. But when ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff saw the show at Sundance, she wanted it for the Geary, which is anything but a small, intimate space.

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“On this enormous stage we’re really finding the theatricality of this story,” Yew says. “Once you break out of the elevator, the look and the imagination of the piece becomes fertile and huge. Being alone with yourself for three days. What would you think? What memory seeps in? So we invade the space with tension between the real and not real, between China and America. Sometimes the elevator is even the oil tanker on which the man was smuggled from China to America.”

Describing what Stuck Elevator sounds like is challenging for Yew. “There are moments where it defies musical theater structure,” he says. “It has the most haunting, beautiful, melodic songs you’ve ever encountered. It’s something slightly new but also familiar. It’s a new form of musical theater that marries the traditions of opera because of its size. And it’s a traditional story exploring what it is to be an immigrant in America.”

Though demands as artistic director and director for hire loom large in Yew’s life, he says he’s still writing, though not as rigorously as he once did.

“I’d like to do a play every couple of years,” he says. “I direct more than I write.”

An immigrant himself from Singapore, born of Chinese parents, Yew is now an American citizen and very much part of the American theater’s upper echelon.

“I’ve been very privileged to be in two chapters of American multiculturalism in the arts,” Yew says. “I’ve been the gay person at the table and the Asian person at the table. Those were communities and cultures that were offered as samples at the theatrical buffet. But in the 21st century, it’s all about diversity. Your story is my story. The gay story is no longer the gay story but the American story. We don’t just want the black story for February but the black story for every day. It’s very exciting for me now, as an American, to be a theater artist. ”

For Yew, the story of Stuck Elevator resonates with all Americans, because at some point in our family trees, we were all immigrants.

“For 70 or 80 minutes we see into the life of a man who is like the men and women who sit across from us on BART or who we see around town,” Yew says. “We get to see what’s in his head and in his heart, why he is trying so hard to make a life for himself in a new country. For a little bit of time, he is not so anonymous.”

[bonus video]
Julius Ahn, who plays a Chinese restaurant delivery man stuck in an elevator, sings “Shame” in rehearsal for Stuck Elevator at ACT.

Stuck Elevator continues through April 28 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

The dark art of violence and abuse

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Dael Orlandersmith wrote and stars in Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a drama about abused boys and how the violence impacts their lives. Photos by

Dael Orlandersmith’s Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men is a brutal experience. How could it not be? Its 90-plus minutes are all about the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of young men and how such violence affects them into adulthood. These fictional stories are harrowing, graphic and shattering, which is to say this is as far as you can get from an evening of light entertainment.

Orlandersmith wrote and performs these grim stories, and she doesn’t pull any punches as she plays six men/boys of varying ages and ethnicities. Under the direction of Chay Yew, Orlandersmith is such a graceful, powerful performer that you can’t take your eyes off of her, even when the material makes you flinch.

The most effective characters are the ones the Orlandersmith develops over several visits. When we first meet Flaco, he’s 15 and talking all about the hustle – everyone, from the social workers in the 11 group homes he’s been in over the last four years to himself, is playing one game or another. At 15, he’s quite the hustler himself, but we won’t know the extent of his hustle until we meet him again later in the show. By way of introduction, he re-creates his home life with a Puerto Rican dad who desperately wants to take his family back home and a Puerto Rican mom who is slowly losing her mental faculties and falling into the grip of what she calls “the daisy chain king.” What transpires between mother and her young son is horrific, and when Flaco tries to tell people about it, no one will believe him because “women, mothers don’t do that kind of thing.” The next chapters in Flaco’s life, as he attempts to make a life for himself on the streets and outside the broken system that is attempting to “care” for him, just get worse.

The other well-defined character is Ian, a lad from Manchester, England, whose Irish parents drive him from their home with their propensity for drink. After an especially harrowing and nearly deadly incident with his raging drunk father, Ian makes plans to live his life differently, and we see him, through the years, trying do so, even as his behavior begins to echo the world he fought so hard to escape.

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The non-recurring characters are not as compelling. Larry, a groundskeeper known as “the Mayor of Central Park,” tells us about a father and his two sons who come play football in the park. The dad and older brother are fighting hard to make the younger brother, who is apparently not a paragon of masculinity, into a tough he-man. And by fighting hard, Larry implies that they’re essentially bullying him to the point of abuse. I kept expecting to hear from Larry again or maybe to hear from the bullied young man himself later in the show, but that never happens, leaving this episode feeling incomplete.

I have a personal aversion to adults playing children, so when Orlandersmith launched into the story of 11-year-old Timmy in his shaky little-boy voice, I cringed a little. The story, about Timmy’s junkie mom, her various horrible boyfriends and a life no child should ever have to experience, is a sadly predictable downward spiral that leaves Timmy wondering why God hates him. He says, in a voice more from a writer than from an 11-year-old, that he wonders where God is.

The most difficult story of all comes from Tenny, an even-keeled, self-aware child molester who preyed upon his own pre-teen nephew. Orlandersmith follows Tenny into his prison sentence, and he says he can’t help who he is, but everything he says only makes this story more repulsive. The most frustrating story is that of Mike, a kid with a rough past (in a family of seven kids, he was known as the “trick baby”) who seemed to rise above it, turning his past into art via his writing and serving kids like him in a shelter. But Mike can’t escape his past, either, and melts down in a way that he sees as a complete failure.

I have to say I had a hard time with this show, and I guess that’s the point. I can’t say I’d recommend it, though it’s expertly performed and designed (the austere set, just a frayed wooden floor and a chair, is by Daniel Ostling and the stunning lights, shaping the darkness into physical space, is by Ben Stanton).

I know stories like this need to be told and theater shouldn’t always be easy, but I guess what I miss most in this world-premiere show (a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) is a sense of Orlandersmith herself and her connection to these stories. I wish the show conveyed in some way why she’s sharing these stories with us and why she keeps us at such a distance while making us and making us feel black, blue and broken ourselves.

Dael Orlandersmith’s Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men continues through June 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit