By Jose Herrera | @josehndrxx_
Alumnus Joe Ngo’s (’06, theatre arts) emotionally resonant portrayal of the lead role, Chum, in the play “Cambodian Rock Band” landed him an Obie award over the summer. The ceremony, presented virtually this year, is hosted by the American Theatre Wing which recognizes innovative work and those showing potential in the theatre industry.
Ngo’s ability to “imbue the role with a heartbreaking authenticity and warmth that only comes when a play is perfectly matched with its performer” was cited as a reason for celebrating his outstanding performance, according to an awards committee press release.
This lauded performance, however, was only possible through the intimate connection he shared with his character. “My parents are actual survivors of the Cambodian genocide,” Ngo said. “I am definitely proud of my work, and Chum was a character that was really made for me — not many people would be able to play this role.”
The play, written by Lauren Yee, tells a story of a man named Chum who flees Cambodia in the 1970s to escape the genocides led during the Khmer Rouge regime. Thirty years later, he returns to search for his daughter Neary.
Although it has been 15 years since Ngo last took the stage at Cal Poly Pomona’ University Theatre, everything he learned and experienced at CPP has traveled with him on his acting journey well after his academic career.
“By my senior year, I can’t even count how many roles and plays I was in,” Ngo said. “As far as the most roles played in the theatre department? Although I can’t tell you exactly how many, I know I was up there.”
Reminiscing on the years he spent at the theatre department, Ngo credited Bernardo Solano, currently the department chair, for giving him numerous opportunities to play roles that shaped him into the award-winning actor he is today.
“Bernardo Solano is a name I will remember, who I can really say impacted my life and career,” Ngo said. “He definitely saw something in me that made him trust me into giving me these odd-ball roles.”
Solano, recalling the memories of Ngo’s performances, shared the qualities that made the young actor stand out. “He was definitely hard-working, and I remember specifically giving him the role of a character who used a puppet,” Solano said. “Joe embraced that role, and I remember him really practicing using this puppet and learning this character.”
Ngo, who also took various courses outside of his major during his time at CPP, explained that every course — including wine tasting and a course revolving around grizzly bears — improved his acting skills. By stepping out of his comfort zone, he found that these courses added depth to his future roles and characters.
Ngo emphasized the importance of finding a career that students are truly passionate about. “There were people who told me during the early stages of ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ that it won’t do something for my career or that it’s not a good way to spend my time. However, I knew this was special to me and this was something I wanted to do.”
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