The Thrust: War Is Hell

On ACT’s stage through November 5, the traveling hit Cambodian Rock Band digs into decades-old scars of war, with wrenching scenes layered in rock melodies. Earlier this month, a local playwright’s Two Big Black Bags took on similar hauntings of war.  


Everyone is guilty of something.

Cambodian Rock Band is a stealthily wrenching show, packing hellish prison camp interrogations into its brightly colored, retro concert sheen. 

At the capital city of Phnom Penh, a doofy, fanny pack-wearing dad, brimming with go-getter enthusiasm, drops in unexpectedly on his daughter. She’s there to present a long-overdue case of wartime atrocities (with perhaps a little recreation on the side). But Dad’s connection to the case, it turns out, is much closer than her own. 

Playwright Lauren Yee’s work is already well-known to some Seattle audiences. Her King of the Yees workshopped early iterations here at ACT, and later went on to a full production there in 2017. Her The Great Leap performed at Seattle Rep the following year. And further-back audiences might even recall 2010’s Ching Chong Chinaman with SIS Productions. Dengue Fever, meanwhile, is probably much less familiar; but it was that band’s music, inspired by uncovered Cambodian rock classics, which inspired Yee down this lengthy research and writing path. The band’s music is featured throughout the show. 

In Cambodian Rock Band, Yee uses the real-life trial as a prompt and a rock performance as device to take us back through a dark history, in which the Khmer Rouge ruled through mass extinction in the late 1970s. The show takes us inside one prison, called S-21 — ruled by an efficient overlord and former math teacher — for a close-up look at the psychological hellscape prisoners experienced before their certain slaughter. The show’s (fictional) dad, Chum, a rock guitarist turned prisoner, was one of very few survivors. And to keep surviving, he had long buried his past. Until the war crimes inquest rips it right open.

Joe Ngo (as dad Chum) and Brooke Ishibashi (who doubles up as modern-day daughter and ‘70s band lead singer) are particularly stunning, their performances musically and emotionally demanding alike. With direction by Chay Yew, the others among the dual-role cast (Abraham Kim, Tim Liu, and Jane Lui) show their might in versatile performances, as the band of the past and characters of the present. Villain Duch (Phil Wong) is slick and believably loathsome.

Rock Band packs an emotional punch, both in its subject matter and in the endearing Chum. That potency gets softened slightly by the unnecessary, contrived mini-concert at the tail end, following a gripping song that would have been the perfect punctuation. (In the recent Tina Turner Musical, the tacked-on concert worked. Here, it doesn’t.)

Wrenching but ultimately satisfying, Cambodian Rock Band is quite a show. 

Two Big Black Bags (eSe Teatro) performed through 10/14. Photo by Elodie Li.

More under the radar was eSe Teatro’s Two Big Black Bags, a premiere production by Argentinian-born local playwright Julieta Vitullo. (See NWT’s 2019 interview here.) Presented as a journey with a bit of magic woven through, Black Bags deals in similar themes: the lasting scars of a decades-past war. In the undeclared Malvinas (Falklands) War, Argentina and Britain battled over sovereignty for the islands in 1982. Modern-day James is still trying to put visions from those battles behind him. 

James also has a few more immediate issues: a family who’s grown weary of him flaking out; a woman who’s thrust herself into the mix as a hitchhiker; an imaginary friend-slash-consciousness, who only goes away when James drinks to forget; and two dropped-in garbage bags full of sequential cash. So what happens when these problems can only be fixed by dealing with what’s further back? 

Black Bags makes a clever use of story to present the process of healing amid a broken world, with breadcrumbs of mystery (a missing $649 from the hoard presents special significance), and an ultimately hopeful ending. eSe Teatro’s West of Lenin run, which closed this past weekend (and which Vitullo directed) boasted strong performances and a very clever set design by Alex Winterle — making theatre magic out of scaffolding, netting, and paper — lit up hauntingly by Chih-Hung Shao.


Though stylistically far removed, at their core Cambodian Rock Band and Two Big Black Bags unite in a common conversation. Each a deep cut into a painful pasts, shaped by war, and the lasting imprints of long-ago violence. Each a distant dad, a little-told war, and an ongoing, inner war to heal its scars. 

Cambodian Rock Band (co-production of ACT Contemporary Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre) runs through 11/5 at ACT in Downtown Seattle. Tickets ($79+) here; limited tickets remain. Run time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with intermission. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: same-day rush tickets ($20) offered when available: see info here.

Two Big Black Bags from eSe Teatro ran through 10/14 at West of Lenin in Fremont. See show info here. Performed by Tadd Morgan, Nathan Allen Hare, Adrián Cerrato, Nathan Cárdenas, Teri Lee Thomas, Monica Cortés Viharo, and Kerry Jacinto. Music composition by Matilde Vitullo.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of