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First Person: The Child of Khmer Rouge Survivors Plays Out His Family History Onstage

Joe Ngo, star of Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band at Signature Theatre, opens up about the difficult past that helped build this important new work.

Joe Ngo stars as Chum in Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band, directed by Chay Yew, at Signature Theatre.
(photo provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

It was after our first reading of the then Untitled Cambodian Pop Play that I mentioned to Lauren Yee how much this new work of hers deeply touched me, to which she nonchalantly replied, "I tend to write fairly universal Asian-American stories," or something to that effect.

To which I returned, "I don't think you understand. I'm Chinese-Cambodian. My parents are survivors of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian genocide."

It was as if in that moment, Lauren had been sitting on a mound of dynamite and I had brought the matches, or perhaps it was vice versa, because immediately following that day's reading, we headed over to a local restaurant — Lauren armed with a recorder, pen, and notebook, and I, a collection of family stories. I shared as many of these as I could recall, and through the process, the character of Chum began to cement himself as the play's unexpected protagonist — one grounded in anecdotal authenticity.

Whenever I am approached with the question of how it feels to play a character who is so innately attached to my own family's tragic history, I'm bound to ultimately settle on one answer: It is both deeply rewarding and difficult, the two feelings not being mutually exclusive. When the play first premiered at South Coast Rep, there were nights when I would find myself weeping for an hour after performances, the piece triggering a nerve of my inherited trauma. And yet every time I have been asked to return to the role, without hesitation, I have done so with an understanding that the character continually challenges me in ways I could never have imagined.

Courtney Reed and Joe Ngo in a scene from Cambodian Rock Band at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

Even after numerous performances, I had this incredible obligation to "get it right" — to honor the survivors and the entirety of their experiences. I kept putting layer upon layer into the part, trying to capture it all, and at the same time, picking at my vulnerabilities and self-doubt as both actor and child of survivors. So it's not surprising that when the production hit its highest peaks, I had begun to fall apart. I was at a point where I felt like my work was never going to be enough — that I myself, would never be enough.

Fortunately for me, Chay Yew is one of those directors with a keen enough eye to spot when actors begin digging themselves into such bottomless pits of despair. He stopped to remind me of one my own fundamental beliefs— something I'd neglected:

"I know how deeply connected you are to this part, but you are not your character. Just play your truth."

"Playing my truth" saved me. It reminded me that the deep roots of my specific work and of my experiences being truthful to me were indeed enough, and undeniably universal — that I didn't have to be every Khmer Rouge survivor, nor the perfect representation of all things represented in the play.

When I objectively think back to the restaurant where I shared my stories with Lauren, I realize now who I truly was in that space and time. I wasn't just some actor with a playwright trying to build a character. I was a child of survivors with an urgent need to share my truth in those stories — stories that would prove that I had a place among the chain of survivors, stories that would prove that it had all actually happened, and stories that would prove that we had survived.

Moses Villarama, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed, and Abraham Kim in Cambodian Rock Band, running off-Broadway through March 15.
(© Joan Marcus)