Joe Ngo is currently appearing in The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep) production of Mlima’s Tale, a moving, lyrical journey through the dark world of the international ivory trade from two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, helmed by Shariffa Ali, at COCA’s state-of-the-art Berges Theatre (6880 Washington Ave St. Louis, MO) through July 11, 2021. Tickets are available: repstl.org.
‘Mlima’s Tale’ tells the story of a majestic and powerful African elephant murdered for his tusks. From beyond the veil of death, Mlima’s spirit follows the path of his tusks on a captivating and haunting journey through the dark world of the international ivory trade.
Last March, Joe was starring as Chum in Lauren Yee’s acclaimed play Cambodian Rock Band, an intimate rock epic about family secrets set against a dark chapter of Cambodian history featuring songs by Dengue Fever and helmed by Chay Yew at Signature Theatre, before the 2nd extension of the show got cut short due to the Pandemic. The Company had just laid down the tracks for their CRB Cast Recording.
This darkly funny, electric new play with music tells the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor returning to Cambodia for the first time in thirty years, as his daughter prepares to prosecute one of Cambodia’s most infamous war criminals. Backed by a live band playing contemporary Dengue Fever hits and classic Cambodian oldies, this thrilling story toggles back and forth in time as father and daughter face the music of the past.
Last July, Joe received the 2020 Obie Award for Performance during the virtual 65th Annual Obie Awards ceremony. Presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Village Voice, the 2020 Obie Award ceremony recognized Ngo for “his electric and devastating performance as Chum.”
The Obie committee shared, “Rarely do roles ask an actor to live a whole life onstage, much less one that survives a genocide and fronts a rock band playing guitar and singing in Khmer. Somehow this actor made it all look effortless, making audiences laugh and dance while gutting them emotionally. In a performance that brought decades of history and humanity onstage, he imbued the role with a heartbreaking authenticity and warmth that only comes when a play is perfectly matched with its performer.”
Watch the video of Joe’s Obie Award acceptance speech below:
Joe Ngo is an actor/writer/musician who most notably originated and developed the role of Chum in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, with productions at South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre in NYC for which he received a 2020 OBIE award for his performance and was nominated for a 2020 Drama League Distinguished Performance Award. Other notable credits include: Regional: White Snake (Center Stage/Baltimore), King of the Yees (ACT/Seattle, Center Stage/Baltimore), Vietgone (Studio Theatre, DC) TV: Crashing (HBO) V/O: Funan (gKids) As a writer; his work is primarily geared towards solo performance/devised theatre and include: Words, Words… (Leviathan Labs, BarnArts/BarnFest NYC). Education: MFA (UW Seattle) Joe was nominated for Lead Performance for Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Repertory by the critics of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Joe-Ngo.com
Arena Stage recently announced the kick-off of the first North American tour of Signature Theatre’s production of Cambodian Rock Band, featuring songs by Dengue Fever and helmed by Chay Yew, will play the Kreeger Theater, April 12-May 15, 2022.
Last weekend, I traveled to St. Louis for the opening performance of St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s production of King Lear starring Andre De Shields. I had time to see Mlima’s Tale and catch up with Joe at Salt & Smoke (6525 Delmar Blvd). We shared a Bestie Combo, inhaling St. Louis style fatty BBQ brisket, St. Louis Cut ribs, white cheddar cracker mac and beef fat fries with a few cocktails, al fresco. (menu)
Below is an edited version of our chat which I transcribed while listing to the Cambodian Rock Band Cast Recording on Spotify.
Lia: How have you been?
Joe: I’m doing okay. It’s nice to be working again. I never thought that the first place I would be coming would be St. Louis, MO, but fortunately for me, it was a risk I was going to take and a challenge in what we thought might be a post-pandemic theater scene. I don’t know how else to describe it. When the job came up, it was surprising because at the time we were doing auditions and it still felt pretty early. But now that we are here, it does feel like we are coming back and the environment is ready for theater again.
Lia: What has it been like to work on Mlima’s Tale?
Joe: This process has been incredibly challenging. This play itself is already a beast. What I like about it is – where we are in our times now and the questions we are asking in the play – it mostly deals with Africa and Asia, the questions asked are pressing to what America is facing now in terms of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Stop Asian Pacific Islander Hate. It’s so pressing in the nature of the world that this play can’t help but speak to it. This play, under the guise of ivory trafficking, is a commentary on the selling of Black bodies. That is incredible to unpack and think about every day as we experiment and work through it.
Fourth Asian American Night of CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND at Signature Theatre Company in New York in 2020. Photo by Lia Chang
Lia: How long have you been living with Cambodian Rock Band?
Joe: I’ve been working on Cambodian Rock Band on and off for 5 years. I first met Lauren in 2014. We started working together when she was developing King of the Yees. I went on to help her develop The Great Leap, which has produced by theaters across the country, and then Cambodian Rock Band. Cambodian Rock Band is our baby together. Lauren will admit that too. I always joke about how we were just matches and dynamite waiting to find each other. When we did, it was like boom! boom! Boom! Boom! We’ve had numerous workshops, four productions under our belt and then this beast of a national tour that is going out.
Lia: Once Lauren started collaborating with you on Cambodian Rock Band, she tapped into your family story. How did that unfold?
Joe: It was like the most magic of moments. Never have I ever said that a play has been written for me, but in some ways, the play has been written for me. When I was in Grad school, she came up to Seattle to workshop it. When I read Cambodian Rock Band the first time, I shared my family story with Lauren. I told her that my family is Cambodian Chinese. I am ethnically Chinese. My grandparents were born in China, but they immigrated to Cambodia, so my parents are nationally Cambodian, but the culture I grew up was a hybrid of both. Things I never knew or expected that I thought were very Chinese, turned out to be Cambodian and vice versa. I grew up speaking Teochew, which is like a Chinese Language, and they borrowed so much in Khmer that is Teochew. There are words that I thought were completely Teochew or Khmer, and they are attributed to one another. The cultures are very enmeshed within each other. I cannot say that I am one or the other.
I brought that up to Lauren during that workshop and she said, “I didn’t know this about you. I assumed you were Chinese.” Because we had worked on King of the Yees. We pulled each other aside and went to a restaurant nearby and I told her my family story of survival, background and things that later on, we never thought would come to play, happened to come into play. I told her that one of my Great Uncles used to play in a live band, karaoke back in Cambodia. That is essentially why the karaoke scene exists in Cambodian Rock Band. Small little Easter eggs exist throughout the show. For example, for most of the major productions, there’s a recording at the beginning of the show that announces the news, and it is my mom’s voice, the voice of the radio announcer. I get to start the show with my mom’s voice right at the top of the play. They’ve used that for every major production of the play. In addition to the karaoke scenario and my mom’s voice, the song ‘Champa Battambang’ is secretly a tribute to my family history because my family is from that city, that town. When Lauren mentioned, “We have to have a song.” Sinn Sisamouth immediately came to mind. He is the Elvis, the Frank Sinatra, the everything of Cambodia, the main singer of Cambodia. I thought we must have a song by him. We looked through the archives of all the famous songs and one of the songs was ‘Champa Battambang’. I knew I was going to fight for this song. It’s become a secret tribute to my parent’s hometown.
Lia: What does that feel like?
Joe: It’s both an incredible responsibility and an incredible burden. I was struggling because the weight was never taken off. Everybody that has touched this play, including my cast members and the designers, have come in with a reverence, knowing that we’re working on a play that is essentially a true story about this atrocious thing that happened to my family and our people. We’ve never taken it easy. Knowing that my parents’ favorite songs are in the show, gives me as a performer, so much to look forward to. Whether they are there are not, I get to sing to my parents. I get to sing to my people. it’s always a reminder when I hear my mom’s voice at the top of the show. When I play ‘I’m Sixteen’, literally, my mom was a pre-teen hearing this song about being 16 and growing up in that time. It is one of her favorite songs. These songs reminded them of their glory days, growing up as youths. It was a different world. It is essentially what the play captures, these young Cambodians whose innocence is taken away. It’s not a stretch to say it is tied so closely to my parents’ experience.
Lia: Has what you want audiences to take away from the show evolved for you?
Joe: It’s a different experience for different groups of people. The wonderful thing about Cambodian Rock Band is that its so specific. Because it is so specific and singular, it actually becomes universal because we understand those experiences. People know what loss is. Forget about the context of the play. Everybody gets that, a loss in their lives. We’ve just put it in the context of this play. I don’t think anybody can escape that reality of the play. It is a vessel for the expansion of the knowledge of Asian American and Asian Diaspora history, because it is a history that is not talked about, not know about. I grew up knowing about it because it is my family history, but nobody else knew about it.
Lia: I just saw James Taing’s documentary, Ghost Mountain: The Second Killing Fields, which follows the story of his father, Bunseng Taing and his family who were forcibly herded with thousands of other refugees across the mountainous borders of Preah Vihear.
Joe: The filmmaker came to talk me. I talked to his dad and they spoke Teochew. He asked how I knew about it. I told him that my parents, you probably met them. They came down that same mountain. Everybody did. That’s part of the journey. For Khmer people, Cambodians, Cambodian Americans, the story hits the closest to home. The second layer is Asian Americans, they understand erasure and invisibility.
What is brilliant about Cambodian Rock Band when Lauren was developing it, is what gets overlooked because of the grand scheme and the grand plots. I remember when Lauren was working on CRB, she had this sneaky idea. Anyone who’s met me knows that I’m not some leading man type. When Lauren worked on this play, originally, she had cast me as the same role, but Chum was sort of the sidekick in the first readings of it. What became valuable for her to explore as a playwright was – what if the person you don’t pay attention to could tell their story. It became an incredible arc for this character Chum in the entire telling of it. He’s so erased that he doesn’t even tell his children his story. The whole erasure of the Cambodian genocide exists in that. The people themselves, the Cambodian people try to erase that history because it is so painful, to be able to function and exist in society. Even in the world of creating theater, what if the sidekick got to tell his side of the story. There are so many hints of it. The actor who plays the Ted track stands out in a way, that’s obviously the leading guy. But we’re not hearing his story. We get to hear about the guy that doesn’t stand out. Lauren has played to the power of giving voice to the B character, the character that has more interesting things to say. The character who survived by being not noticeable and survived off the skills that were tossed on to him. He didn’t know how to survive but he had to because of all this collected knowledge.
Lia: Can you share details of the 2022 tour?
Joe: Originally, the tour was slated for 2021, but as COVID wreaked havoc across the country, we knew it was less and less likely…”
Fingers crossed; rehearsals begin again at the end of March. Chay is directing. It is still the Off-Broadway Signature production with the same cast and creatives depending on everyone’s availability. By that time, it will have almost been 2 years since the show closed prematurely in March, 2020.
Lia: During the pandemic, CRB Cast Members and Creatives were asked to contribute to various benefits. Were there any standouts?
Joe: Early on, Lauren asked me to do the Cambodian Rock Band Challenge. We hatched this idea. Lauren and I were in conversation after CRB was canceled due to COVID. Lauren said, “We just released this album and we don’t get to have fun. We don’t get to do anything about it.” And then the George Floyd killing happened and it was so heart wrenching. It was debilitating. We put ourselves on hold to give space for that. We considered what we could do as Asian creatives to give back to that. The CRB Challenge was launched with the intent that we would raise money for Black-Led organizations and also paired with Mekong NYC and support groups who often times work with those Black-Led organizations.
Videos can be viewed on instagram.com/cambodianrockband.
Lia: What does it feel like to be regarded as an Asian American Leading Man?
Joe: What’s wonderful about Cambodian Rock Band, with Chum being sort of a B character, we need that. I’m all for the handsome hunks like Marc delaCruz taking up the space, but there need to be other forms of representation in a play like CRB that is so wonderfully complex, The characters are dirty. The story is dirty. It reminds me of that big Roger Ebert controversy at Sundance back in the day with Better Luck Tomorrow. Asians can be whatever.
There’s an unapologetic nature that comes with a character like Chum. Nobody’s clean in that play and that is fine. That’s the way it should be. When people want to play up and continue to build up this notion of theater and stereotypes, of course just perpetuates Yellow Face. It just keeps going backwards. The more you try to explain that thing away, the more obvious it is. Let us be bad guys. Let us be good guys. Let us be everything that we need to be because the more human and raw, pain filled et. cetera that we can be, the more value it has for us as a theater creating world, as a community, as people, as human beings, as citizens, as everything. That’s all we’re asking. The wonderful thing about CRB is it asks that. It’s pretty bold faced about asking that, even with its villainous characters. Even with its heroes. It asks all the dark questions.
Lia: Do you have any dream roles?
Joe: No. I’ve been so blessed to have CRB, literally a role that was written for me. Very few actors get to say that. Specifically, not just for cultural heritage, ethnic heritage, my type, my skillset, my needs, my everything was written into this role. It’s such a big thing to have been given that. I don’t know if I could have asked for anything better.
With what we’ve been given in terms of generations before and knowing that. That is the great thing about the Asian American theatrical community, we definitely know our history when it comes to what we need. Now we have better opportunities to tell that story. It’s not lost on us that Lauren will play with those tropes because she knows what has been that challenge. One of the most wonderful things that has ever been said to me was by Chay Yew, our director of Cambodian Rock Band. He said to us at the South Coast Rep world premiere of CRB, on our last day, before opening, he said, I’m giving you the show. When I say I am giving you the show, I mean that I am giving you the show. You are going to go out there and do your best. Know that your group of six Asian American actors/performers, you are the generation that gets to live this out. I’m the old generation from before and I can only give you guidance. It’s yours now. This show is yours. The theater is yours too. I can only do my best to give that to you.” He literally was giving us his soul.
Signature Theatre Celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with Asian Imagination: How Art and Theatre Can Combat AAPI Violence Featuring David Henry Hwang, Lauren Yee, Chay Yew, Francis Jue, Courtney Reed, Joe Ngo and Diep Tran on May 26; AAPI Heritage Month Virtual Happy Hour on May 27
May 3-11: Asian Cultural Council Presents Virtual EAST WEST FEST with The Sống Collective’s Curated Lineup Featuring Joe Ngo, Anu Bhatt, Ruby Ibarra, C.B. Lee, Stacy Nguyen, Bao Phi, Sara Porkalob; Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Viet Thanh Nguyen and Multimedia Artist Tiffany Chung; Mai Lê Hô and More
Watch: CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND Cast members Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo, and Courtney Reed, Playwrights Katori Hall, Samuel D. Hunter, Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage, and Dave Malloy Set for Signature Theatre’s 30th Anniversary Virtual Celebration; Anna Deavere Smith to Receive Signature Outstanding Artist Award
Yellow Sound Label to Release the Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording of Lauren Yee’s CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND Featuring Francis Jue, Abraham Kim, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo, Courtney Reed and Moses Villarama on May 8
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman. She stars in and served as Executive Producer for the short independent films Hide and Seek, Balancing Act, Rom-Com Gone Wrong, Belongingness and When the World was Young (2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative). She is also the Executive Producer for The Cactus, The Language Lesson, The Writer and Cream and 2 Shugahs.
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