October 3, 2018

A City Restaurant Confronts Gentrification in “Salt Pepper Ketchup”; Edgy, Probing Drama Receives a Strong Premiere at Passage Theatre

“SALT PEPPER KETCHUP”: Performances are underway for “Salt Pepper Ketchup.” Directed by Jerrell L. Henderson, the play runs through October 14 at Passage Theatre. Paul (Justin Pietropaolo, left), a representative of a food co-op, shows restaurant owners John Wu (Fenton Li) and his wife Linda (Chuja Seo) an article about their new partnership — but the results are different from what has been promised. (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre is opening its season with the first professional production of Salt Pepper Ketchup. Playwright Josh Wilder was born and raised in Philadelphia, where the play is set; this is reflected by the script’s urgent realism. Director Jerrell L. Henderson, who directed the equally thought-provoking Caged for Passage’s previous season, has elicited uniformly strong performances from the gifted cast.

In the Point Breeze neighborhood, John Wu runs the Superstar Chinese-American Takeout; he plans to purchase the building as soon as he is able to get a loan. His wife Linda, who also is Chinese-American, cooks the meals and attempts to keep the restaurant clean. As portrayed by Chuja Seo, Linda is comparatively soft-spoken, but her body language — particularly when she taps the wastebasket with a dust pail — clearly conveys her mood.

The first thing the audience sees is Colin McIlvaine’s elaborate scenery. Various Chinese meals clearly are for sale, as are candies and soft drinks. The brick wall is grease-stained, and in addition to the furniture, a wastebasket is visible in one corner. This amount of detail will prove to be integral to the story.

As the national anthem blares over the sound system, John places American flags on his walls. Ostensibly this is to celebrate passing his citizenship test, but it also can be interpreted as claiming territory. Fenton Li infuses John with gruff resolve. He is a man determined to defend every inch of his space.

As such he is a natural adversary for Paul, a white man who enters to sell memberships to the New Bold Community Co-Op, an establishment that sells expensive health food. As Paul, Justin Pietropaolo consistently lets the smooth-talking character test the personal space of others — just as the co-op is intruding on the neighborhood.

CeCe, an African American woman, is one of the Wus’ most loyal customers. Her child’s picture is one of several that hangs on the plexiglass that separates the kitchen from the dining area. In front of John, Paul points out to her the amount of money she is spending at the restaurant, and contrasts it with the co-op’s $100 membership fee.

CeCe is put off by the cost of the membership, but Paul offers her a payment plan of $20 a month. She accepts, in an attempt to eat more healthily, nourish her child, and take advantage of the potential the co-op appears to offer. Kendra Holloway gives CeCe a brisk, matter-of-fact demeanor.

Linda expresses dissatisfaction with John’s lack of participation in maintaining the restaurant, and with their life. She is interested in Paul’s offers of affiliation with the co-op, and is frustrated by John’s dismissal of them. She shows John a letter rejecting their application for a loan, and chides him for not working with a Chinese bank, as she has urged him to do. We learn that the Wus are working to enable their son to be with them.

For a price, Raheem and Tommy — two African Americans who are regular customers of the Wus — offer to scare Paul away. The performances by Jaron C. Battle as Raheem, and Mark Christie as Tommy, make clear that their characters are shrewd, bitter, and have experienced similar situations many times.

Boodah, who is CeCe’s cousin, quietly urges John not to listen to them. However, John reluctantly accepts their offer, offering them food as a “down payment.” He calls Paul and requests a meeting after closing time.

At the meeting, Paul tells the Wus that the co-op is interested in partnering with them, so that they can adapt as developers effect changes in the neighborhood. John is suspicious, but Linda persuades him to sign the contract. Not unlike CeCe, she pragmatically decides that a more secure future lies in accepting the changes that Paul is bringing, rather than fighting them.

CeCe storms in to demand that Paul refund her money. She is incensed by the co-op’s price for apples ($2.50 apiece), and quips that they didn’t “come from Eden.” She also is upset that the cashier, Megan, told her that the co-op has not been approved to accept food stamps, and that “not everybody uses” them. Paul declines the refund, but offers her a gift card. She calls Boodah, tells him that she is being robbed, and asks him to come to the restaurant.

Until this point, Boodah has been something of a calming influence. However, his instinct to protect his cousin momentarily changes him; he and Tommy assault Paul. Throughout most of the play, Richard Bradford plays Boodah as a man of thoughtful reserve, so the character’s actions here are the shock they need to be.

The police arrive and arrest Boodah, Tommy, and CeCe. Paul protests that he is working at the co-op to pay off his student loans; “And there are no jobs available. So I live here and I’m trying to make the best out of it,” he protests to the audience.

After the intermission, we see that the restaurant has been thoroughly changed. The wall has been painted, and decorations have been added to reflect stereotypical perceptions about Asian culture. Because the sets are so detailed, we can see how much time John has spent establishing his business, and how much has now been changed against his will.

Linda is pleased that the walls are clean, but John is infuriated by the changes in décor — though Paul reminds him that their contract permits the renovations.

The situation does not improve when the Wus meet Megan, the cashier whom CeCe encountered. She has been promoted to a managerial position, and sent to discuss changes in menu and pricing at the restaurant. Miriam White infuses Megan with sprightly eagerness.

When CeCe enters to apply for a job, Megan is receptive, and John decisively undercuts her authority by decisively hiring CeCe. Paul, however, objects to employing “a criminal.” The conflict worsens when Megan’s peanut allergies affect her, and Paul decides that Linda should no longer be in charge of the kitchen. Like CeCe, she has tried to be part of a system that ultimately spits her out.

Wilder’s script is multilayered, and explores numerous themes. Gentrification, and racial tensions fueled by economic practices that disadvantage minorities, are focal points of the play. However, differences in motivation within the disparate communities complicate relationships between the realistic characters.

The gatekeepers — John, Tommy, and Raheem — oppose the changes to the neighborhood. The pragmatists, Linda and CeCe, try to work with those who are bringing the change. The play underlines the necessity of solidarity to preserve a community. To an extent, Paul and Megan genuinely want to connect with the community their business is affecting, but they lack the cultural or societal understanding to do it meaningfully.

Ultimately, that is what Salt Pepper Ketchup contributes; it facilitates conversation within communities about the issues it addresses. Indeed, it is worth audience members’ time to stay for the stimulating post-show discussions.

This production is a collaboration between Passage, and Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company, where it will be staged after the run in Trenton has ended.

“Salt Pepper Ketchup” will play at Passage Theatre in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton, through October 14. For tickets, show times, and information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.