Returning to Her Parents’ Musical Roots

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Brooke Ishibashi, with guitarist Joe Ngo, lets it fly during a performance of “Cambodian Rock Band.” (Photos by Tania Thompson/South Coast Repertory)

Brooke Ishibashi, the star of South Coast Repertory’s upcoming world premiere show “Cambodian Rock Band,” sits down to discuss all things music, and how her “family business” prepared her for a life in entertainment.

The interviewer is Brianna Ishibashi-Lapke, Brooke’s proud sister.

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BIL: So, let me start out by saying that I’m so happy you’re back in California.

BI: Me too! It’s surreal being back in SoCal after living in NYC for 11 years.

BIL: How does it feel to be in your old neighborhood doing a show at SCR?

BI: So nostalgic! SCR is doing the kids’ show “Junie B. Jones” right now, and every day I’ll see school buses dropping off groups from elementary schools. I loved those field trips: getting your permission slip signed, packing a special sack lunch, the raucous bus ride sitting next to your best friends, and the excitement of seeing professional theater. It felt so special and is deeply ingrained in my memory.

BIL: Would you say that’s one of the first things that motivated you to pursue this as a career?

BI: Definitely. I think I got the bug very early on. But it was our “family business” that first got the itch going. It was never a question that I would do anything else. Coincidentally, there’s a song called “Family Business” that I sing in the show.

(Entertainment runs through generations of Brooke’s family: great-grandmother Machiko was a pianist and music teacher, grandmother Mary Kageyama Nomura was dubbed “The Songbird of Manzanar” in the Manzanar internment camp during World War II, parents Gerald and Lisa are musicians and singers, and sister Brittany is an actress currently starring on “Marvel’s Runaways” on Hulu.)

BIL: In what ways did the family’s entertainment background help prepare you for a life in the arts?

BI: We were exposed to the entertainment world at a very young age. And many of my close relatives were artists, so it was a very natural transition to become a performer. There was no stigma to wanting to pursue the arts in our family. We also had the opportunity to be backstage at Dad’s concerts hanging out with Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers, soaking in the work of the greats. I think I gleaned an understanding early on of the ins and outs of the industry by getting an inside peek at what that life was like.

BIL: You were very involved in the theater scene in NYC. How did you come to be involved in “Cambodian Rock Band” way out here in California?

BI: I knew the glorious Lauren Yee from the New York theater scene (all the Asian theater people tend to know each other; it’s one big familial community), and she and director May Adrales (known for her compelling work in “Vietgone”) got me involved in one of the first workshops at SCR back in late 2016. I’m so grateful to have been involved from such an early point. I’m also just over the moon to be working with Lauren, our illustrious director Chay Yew, and a badass cast of all Asian American actor/musicians. SCR has been the most rewarding artistic home for this play. They commissioned Lauren to write it about two and a half years ago and have been fostering the development of the show ever since.

BIL: New, diverse work is so important.

BI: Agreed. Our stories need to be seen and heard.

BIL: Music is also a large part of this show. Is it true the actors are also the musicians in “Cambodian Rock Band”?

BI: Yes, we pull double duty as the actors and the band. Much of the music is actually from the SoCal band Dengue Fever. Catch them live if you can, they’re next level!

BIL: What are you listening to these days?

BI: Oh boy. I’m immersed in all things “Cambodian Rock Band” at the moment, so I’m listening to a lot of Dengue Fever and traditional Cambodian rock. Besides that, I’m taking inspiration from Grace Potter, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette…

BIL: I remember you used to make musical inspiration playlists to listen to before each of your shows. Do you still do that and, if so, what’s on the playlist for CRB?

BI: Tons of Dengue Fever, along with Cambodian rock legends Ros Serey Sothea, Sinn Sisamouth, Yol Aularong, and Pen Ran (who all perished from the Khmer Rouge regime). John Pirozzi made a compelling documentary called “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” chronicling the lost music of the era. It’s an incredible watch. I highly recommend it.

BIL: Do you have any other pre-show rituals?

BI: Definitely. I can’t drink alcohol or eat much sugar because I’m singing so much in this show, and I need to keep my immune system up as well. So it’s a lot of hydration, sleep, herbal supplements, meditation, and exercise. I sing a lot in Khmer (pronounced “k-mai”), so there’s a lot of specialized vocal warm-ups too. I also do a little pre-show ritual where I picture all the faces of my immediate family members. It’s kind of a meditative, superstitious thing. I imagine them all protecting and guiding me and sending me good energy.

BIL: Including the cats?

BI: (laughs) Especially the cats!

BIL: How did you learn to sing in Khmer?

BI: In the early workshops, I basically had to learn the music by ear. And then we’d weave in the Khmer lyrics and I’d learn them phonetically. My castmate Joseph Ngo brought in his mother Tina (a Khmer Rouge survivor) and she’s been extremely helpful in coaching us in Khmer pronunciation. Using the traditional songs in Khmer is of great importance to us, as we want to illustrate how significant the music was at the time. It was a cultural revolution.

BIL: For anyone unfamiliar with the show, could you describe it all in one sentence?

BI: I would say it’s a father-daughter journey that dives deep into the harrowing past of Khmer Rouge Cambodia using the explosive psychedelic surf rock music of the era to propel the story.

BIL: And you play the daughter, correct?

BI: Yes. I play Neary, a second-generation Cambodian American who is working to indict one of the Khmer Rouge’s chief henchmen. She’s on a journey of self-discovery and plunges into her family’s past to build a sense of identity.

MAKING THE BAND: Ishibashi and Ngo, along with Jane Lui, Raymond Lee and Abraham Kim.

BIL: Were you familiar with the history of the story prior to becoming involved in the project?

BI: No, I was never taught about the Cambodian genocide in school. The topic was completely foreign to me and blew my mind.

BIL: Could you elaborate on that? I don’t think many people learned about this topic in school or otherwise.

BI: It was a class-based genocide that killed over 2 million people in Cambodia. That was one-quarter of Cambodia’s population. In very crude terms, if one quarter of the U.S. population was obliterated, that would be California, New York, and Florida combined — just to give a sense of perspective. And the fact that this happened less than 40 years ago, just a world away, is unimaginable. They wiped the nation clean of all politicians, military elite, artists, thought leaders, doctors, scientists, anyone with a college degree … can you imagine erasing an entire generation like that and how that hurls a nation backward? How do you even start to process the deep sociopolitical, psychological, and emotional impact that has on a culture? The devastation and recovery is unfathomable. It’s like losing a generation of prolific figures like JFK, Kurt Vonnegut, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Meryl Streep, The Beatles…

BIL: How are you able to connect to a character who is involved in such an unfathomable situation?

BI: The story of “Cambodian Rock Band” actually hits close to home because of my heritage and the impact of Japanese internment during World War II. Being the descendant of a group of people who were persecuted cuts deep. Transgenerational trauma is a real thing and sometimes we don’t realize what we carry with us. It’s also jarring to think that my U.S.-based parents in the ’70s were the contemporaries of these Cambodian music-makers and artists whose only crime was being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ll see photos of myself and Raymond Lee (who fronts CRB’s fictional band The Cyclos with me) and it’s like seeing photos of my parents fronting their band (Stonebridge) in the ’70s. And then looking at photos of my parents’ band is like seeing the youthful, spirited faces of the Cambodian rock bands of the era staring back at me. For me, it really brought an immediacy and connection to this tragic moment in history. This whole generation of Cambodian visionaries were really just a bunch of kids making music they thought could revolutionize the world … but they never got the chance. I feel it’s our responsibility to honor their legacy and their music.

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“Cambodian Rock Band” is running through March 25 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Showtimes: Tuesday through Friday at 7:45 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:45 p.m. (matinee only on closing day). Contains adult language. For more information, call (714) 708-5500 or visit www.scr.org.

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