Lauren Yee was hosting the fifth Asian American night at Signature Theatre for her play Cambodian Rock Band when she learned the show’s run would need to close early as COVID-19 emerged in NYC. Asian American nights would welcome audience members of Asian descent to celebrate and experience the play together in a safe space. Now with theatres dark, Yee turned her focus to new ways of storytelling. “I think since the pandemic started, I did kind of a sharp left turn away from the ways I was doing storytelling before,” Yee said. “I think in the very beginning of the pandemic, long-term writing was hard. I couldn’t think of any long plays. I have taken this time to figure out ways to tell stories in the short form.”
Now, almost a year since the closing of her show, Broadway Direct spoke to Yee about finding inspiration, the stories she yearns to tell, and if she ever dreams of her plays one day making it to Broadway.
Was being a playwright always your first choice?
For a very long time, I’ve wanted to be a playwright and I’ve gotten to do that. The start of the pandemic coincided with a big shift in my career. I was coming off a really wonderful and exciting wave of activity from the past couple of years in which I had several plays—three plays that were thematically linked—that really just resonated for me in different ways. And they had a good amount of success, and I was really grateful for that. The Signature Theatre production of Cambodian Rock Band was the culmination of that work, and I knew as soon as that production was over it’s going to be, what’s next? What is the thing that is going to be different? I knew I couldn’t quite do the exact same thing. It would not feel like growth. I knew I would have to change and think of new things, but I didn’t really realize it would also dovetail with the pandemic.
Can you talk about your experience writing Cambodian Rock Band, and what the show means to you now in the midst of this pandemic?
Cambodian Rock Band is a play that exists for a couple of reasons. I was introduced to the music scene of Cambodia in the 20th century, thanks to the LA band Dengue Fever, which has kind of interpreted that music for an American audience in the 21st century. It’s history that I, as someone who was not Cambodian, did not grow up knowing and its music that I didn’t know when I was younger. That was the catalyst for learning more about that world. Then another big influence on the play was the lead actor, Joe Ngo. He intersected with this play very early on when it was kind of in very nascent stages. And he came in with his own history as the childhood survivors of this genocide. And so, he was just an integral part in bringing the play along to where it is today. There’s live music in it because he happens to play the electric guitar. I think one of the most moving moments that I find in the piece is at the end of Act One. This young band is confronted with a sudden and serious shift in their world. They’re recording this album inside this room and outside, all of a sudden, their world shifts. The leadership changes and the opportunity and options that they thought they might have suddenly shut down. Coincidentally, two days before our show was officially closed early because of the pandemic, the cast was actually recording the album.
What extraordinary parallelism.
I remember we recorded the album two weeks after we opened. Our music director said, “I don’t know why we’re doing it so early.” But we got it finished under the wire because Wednesday, March 11th, 2020 marked our final evening performance.
With your plays so vast in nature, what are the stories you enjoy telling?
I frequently tackle subjects that I don’t quite understand. Concepts and communities where I have some insight into, but it’s how it all works out and how to explain that to someone is a little hard. I think for me, I find it very satisfying being able to dig deep into a world and find a way to put that on stage and theatricalize it and maybe find that metaphor that really speaks to what this was. Sometimes it’s stories that are very close to my biography and sometimes it’s a little further out. I guess with theater in a way it’s like you get to choose different worlds to put yourself in, even for a little while.
While watching the world create a new normal so that we can all live together safely in the midst of this pandemic, we’re watching institutions rethink how they have or have not incorporated diversity and inclusion. As a playwright of color, what are some of the challenges you may have faced during your journey to Off-Broadway and beyond?
I think it is always about looking at these systems that we live in. There’s no one person who has created this system, but we all participate in it. If I’m trying to cast a show, it’s like, you can’t cast it without the people in it. For instance, in Cambodian Rock Band, I need Asian American actors who play these specific instruments at a high level. And if you can’t get them, you can’t do the show, but how do you get those actors? It’s so much about the system that can create these barriers that you’re not even seeing.
What are some of the stories that you look forward to seeing once theatre returns?
I’m always interested in stories about class. Obviously, race and class go hand in hand, but I think the pandemic polarized class inequity. Your experience of the pandemic is different based on how much money you make. I’m interested in seeing those stories come to the stage.
Do you see a future for your shows on Broadway or do you enjoy telling stories to smaller, more intimate audiences?
I feel like on one hand, Young-Jean Lee is the only female Asian American playwright whose work has been on Broadway. So, there’s a part of me that wants to be there just to show that we can be there and we deserve to be there. But at the same time, having never been on Broadway, it also feels like there are certain kinds of stories that get told on Broadway—where producers believe they can make a profit or think that it’s a financially feasible proposition—which is not the first thing when it comes to Off-Broadway or non-profit theatre. So, it’s almost like it’s possible, maybe, for one to aim for Broadway, but I think it’s also about just telling the stories that you want to tell and seeing where they fall.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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