Food for Thought

Review of Salt Pepper Ketchup at Yale Cabaret

Cities change. With major American cities known for being sites of upward mobility, and for “renewals” and renovations, as well as new development and projects, it’s hard to maintain a sense of neighborhood in any given downtown. Philadelphia, however, has long had distinct neighborhoods surrounding its “Center City.” One such area is called Point Breeze, and that’s where Josh Wilder’s new play, a three-act work in progress called Salt Pepper Ketchup, is set. Wilder wants to examine the kinds of tensions that arise when a local business, run by someone not “local,” encounters new neighbors, coming in with gentrification, while trying to remain true to its current customer base. The fact that the business is a Chinese take-out, the existing neighborhood predominantly non-white, and the new residents mostly white lets Wilder use his setting as a microcosm of urban America. When certain areas become “newly desirable,” the developers win, and the locals lose.

In Yale Cabaret’s staging of the first act of the play, we meet embattled John Wu (Eston J. Fung) and his wife Linda (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), owners and operators of Super Star Chinese Take-Out, a cheap eatery that is also a hangout for Tommy (James Udom) and Boodah (Seta Wainiqolo). In walks newcomer Paul (Steven Lee Johnson) who is aggressively proselytizing for a new food co-op and meeting with, at best, annoyed hostility, from Wu, and amused hostility from Tommy. That is until Paul gets a more welcoming nod from Cece (Mia Antoinette), who seems willing to play ball if only to show she’s more broad-minded than the others. Key to all the give and take here is the contemporary view that food served by the typical “greasy spoon” or fast-food emporium really isn’t what people should be eating. The co-op’s effort to provide alternatives isn’t just a nod to diversity, it’s an attack on the status quo—at least that’s how Tommy interprets it for Wu, who is soon quite anxious about being run out of town or closed down by suddenly vigilant health inspectors.

Wilder and director Al Heartley mostly keep a handle on making the back-and-forth between these characters sound like real folks talking, though everything is delivered with a bit more goosed-up verve than we might expect to discover in an everyday interaction—which is to say that tensions seem to be riding high even before anything happens. Keeping it real is helped by interactions between Tommy and Wu that are full of a begrudging acceptance of one another: Wu’s famous “chicken grease” keeps the locals happy, and Tommy is able to speak with the kind of local authority that makes Wu listen. These two could easily be sparring regulars in a sit-com set in a take-out. The other characters are, in a sense, the extras to their ongoing odd couple routine, with Cece fulfilling the role of loose cannon: she joins the co-op, due in part to Paul’s charm, but when she sees those prices and gets too much attitude from a check-out girl, only to be talked-down-to by not-quite-apologetic-enough Paul, then look out!

To make us aware that this isn’t a sit-com, there will be criminal acts and belligerent police, guns drawn. The latter intrusion is a bit too rushed as executed and feels like an effort simply to clear the stage. As a first act ending, though, the violence re-configures Mr. and Mrs. Wu as the lynch-pins: at first they try to take action guided by Tommy, then begin to see the possibility of renovation via collusion with Paul and his co-opters. At this point, they’re really going to have to decide whose side they’re on.

Wilder gives the couple a good scene in which they argue for staying or leaving, showing that they too are trapped by socio-economic forces, which extend also to Paul as part of the newly graduated cohort, saddled with debt and working jobs that don’t pay them enough to live among their own kind. So we see how “downward mobility” and the desperation it inspires come into play too. Salt Pepper Ketchup keeps a sense of harsh realities in play while entertaining us with characters who are worth our time, and the Cab production makes us wonder what happens next.


Salt Pepper Ketchup
By Josh Wilder
Directed by Al Heartley

Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Michael Commendatore; Sound Designer: Ien DeNio; Technical Director: Harry Beauregard; Scenic Painter: Dan Cogan; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke; Fight Director: Julian Elijah Martinez; Producer: Trent Anderson

Cast: Mia Antoinette; Jason de Beer; Eston J. Fung; Sean Boyce Johnson; Steven Lee Johnson; Tanmay Manohar; Francesca Fernandez McKenzie; James Udom; Seta Wainiqolo

Yale Cabaret
January 14-16, 2016