(Scene: Pho Tasty, a downtown Berkeley restaurant where the front windows are all blacked out, on Friday, Nov. 11. It’s new — so new that protective film is still clinging to the metal bits of the tables. The walls are covered in facsimiles of Vietnamese-style velvet painting landscapes, and a lit-up blue bubble wall feature commands the entrance. The joint is half-filled with diners sipping on bowls of phở.)
Dramatis personae: 
Soleil Ho, Chronicle restaurant critic; sick of talking about cultural appropriation but not sick of eating and thinking about noodle soups.
Lily Janiak, Chronicle theater critic; probably didn’t eat any Asian food of any kind at least until she was in middle school; has to slow down before saying “phở” to say it correctly; has chopsticks skills of a kindergartner.
(The two critics peruse their menus, which are printed on eight sheets of paper stapled together, like a high school homework packet. The contents are a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, such as wonton soup and claypot catfish. The pair order spring rolls and two bowls of phở gà, the chicken-based version of the classic noodle soup.)
Janiak: So “Colonialism Is Terrible, But Phở Is Delicious,” which we’re about to head to, down the block at Aurora Theatre Company, is inspired by two viral incidents of food appropriation, which I hadn’t heard about before this show.
Ho: What’s funny is that I pretty much lived those incidents, as, I don’t know, a member of what is nebulously considered to be the Asian American food, uh, bloc? The bigger one of the two was a 2016 video made by Bon Appétit (before the publication’s wholesale cancellation for workplace toxicity and racism) where a white chef in Philadelphia talked about the so-called “right” way to serve and eat phở. The editing of the video was pretty wack, with text proclaiming, “Phở is the New Ramen,” but the chef didn’t help matters by saying that you shouldn’t use condiments. He also showed off a pretty unhinged “noodle twirl” way of eating that I can still see when I close my eyes.
Janiak: I’m imagining a figure skater’s triple-axel, but with noodles. Accurate?
Ho: More like, imagine if the chopsticks were hair curlers. That caused lasting emotional damage to a whole generation of Vietnamese millennials. 
Anyway, a lot of folks got annoyed with him for saying so many absolutist and inaccurate things about phở and at Bon Appétit for elevating this guy as an expert instead of literally any Vietnamese person. 
(Food arrives. The broth wafts with the aromas of cinnamon, star anise and chicken bones. Wilted slices of green onion float on top of each bowl. The critics use chopsticks to dig up the rice noodles, which have congealed at the bottom in a semi-sticky clump.)
Ho: The noodles are funny. It’s a sign that the cook didn’t shake ’em out after blanching them, but it’s not the end of the world. And this chicken breast is a little bit overcooked. But it’s passable — the soup is well-seasoned, and that’s the hardest thing to do.
Janiak: I find it oddly satisfying to try to break up the noodles with my chopsticks. It’s like stepping on a crunchy autumn leaf. 
(Beat for noodle slurp.) 
So that Philadelphia chef sounds pretty egregious. 
Ho: Yeah. At the time, people really piled onto him, but I thought that the bigger issue was that he was elevated at all — that a well-funded magazine spent so many of its resources creating this narrative around phở that didn’t make any sense. It revealed a lot about its perceived audience and who was making the decisions there. The blowback caused Bon Appétit to completely wipe the video from the internet.
Janiak: I know you’re tired of talking about cultural appropriation in food, but you’re really good at it. 
Ho: As you can guess, I’ve been talking about it for years! This crap has been happening in food media for as long as I can remember. Actually, before I was a restaurant critic I was known for being a total pain in the ass to these major publications about how they kept acting as if only white — and mostly male — chefs did anything worth writing about.
Janiak: And at the theater I think we’re about to see this crap’s origin story!
(The pair pay for their dinner and stroll a few doors down to Aurora, where Chinese American playwright Dustin Chinn’s play is getting its world premiere with Vietnamese American director Oánh Nguyễn at the reins. Taking their programs after they enter, Ho and Janiak see that Pho Tasty is offering 15% discounts to ticket holders.)
(The play begins. Act I is set in “French Indochina” in 1889, as Thúy, played by Nicole Tung, auditions to be the next chef for a ruffle- and bustle-clad Madame Gagnier, played by Elissa Beth Stebbins, who’s fanning her armpits and crotch in the un-European humidity. Gagnier wants only French food; Thúy doesn’t understand why she has to learn these weird techniques when she’s already the best chef in her village.)
Ho: (inner monologue) It’s so rare to see French colonizers in Western media portrayed so unromantically; I don’t think they were fanning their butt sweat in the 1992 films “Indochine” and “The Lover.” 
Janiak: (inner monologue) I love the cartoon French accent of Joseph Patrick O’Malley as outgoing chef Guillaume. It reminds me of the “hee hee hee, haw haw haw” cook in “The Little Mermaid.”
Ho: (inner monologue) Using standard American English accents to denote Vietnamese is so “Star Wars.” But it’s definitely better than all the Asians speaking in accented English like in 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” 
(Cut to a split-screen liminal space where the pair’s inner monologues can dialogue with each other while the play proceeds.) 
Janiak: It’s great how so many plays are using that device these days as a way of reframing who speaks quote-unquote normally. 
(As play progresses, Thúy begrudgingly learns to make French pot-au-feu and must choose whether to take this job.) 
Janiak: Man, the insidiousness of Western capitalism’s and colonialism’s dollars! White chefs and diners always get to write the narrative in the exchange of different cultures’ cuisines.
Ho: There’s this line of debate that pops up whenever we talk about cultural appropriation: What’s the difference between appropriation and appreciation, or friendly cultural mixing? There are plenty of French-inspired dishes that live on in the Vietnamese diaspora today, like bánh mì sandwiches, and people outside the community often have no idea how to talk about that history. It’s awkward. And this play dramatizes the unevenness of this particular context: This isn’t a benign cultural exchange. The dynamic is one where one party holds all the economic power and another has to give in to their demands in order to survive.
(In Acts II and III, the show travels to a streetside phở stall in Hồ Chí Minh City in 1999, then to a Brooklyn phở restaurant in the present day. In Act II, Quang, a government tourism official played by Anthony Doan, convinces his friend Múi, also played by Tung, to serve American travelers at her stall. The tourists, whose English is indicated by exaggerated Southern accents, are trying their first bowl of phở and writing copious notes for reasons that Mùi can’t discern.) 
Janiak: (Hearing Stebbins’ Rose, one of the Americans, struggle to pronounce “phở”) It me!
Ho: Chinn really makes the economic dynamics of imperialism and neocolonialism plain in Act II in a way that I’ve been hoping for. Is more outside interest and visibility all that good, in the end? You might profit, but at what cost?
(Act III most closely reenacts the viral Bon Appétit incident, with Danielle, a Vietnamese diner played by Tung, confronting a white chef, played to twitchy, apoplectic hipster perfection by O’Malley, over why he won’t let her eat phở in the way she and her family always have. Ho is transfixed by the numerous noodle bowl tattoos drawn on O’Malley’s arms.)
Ho: The trouble with the final act is that it sticks so close to making the modern-day problem about individuals and what they do — just like the people who blamed that white chef from Philly for a video that was produced and promoted by a whole system of white supremacist aesthetics in food media.
Janiak: Fair. But plays are almost always going to use individuals as symbols for systems.
Ho: Right, though I think a tiny fix would be if the chef had been a James Beard Foundation Award winner, or the restaurant were Michelin-starred. Something to establish the restaurant’s ties to a bigger set of values, to parallel the way French cuisine and the Enlightenment were held up as important in the first act.
(The show concludes, and Janiak and Ho part so Janiak can dash to BART.)
Janiak: (train time reflections) “Colonialism Is Terrible” epitomizes theater-as-education. Chinn elegantly unfurls the history of a delicacy, how one dish can carry more than a century of racial oppression and geopolitical tensions. But I cared about it less as art, partly because — and I hate thinking this as a white person, but — the white characters registered as simple and clueless, which lowered the stakes. It’s difficult to care about someone or the scene they’re in when you’re so clearly supposed to dismiss them. 
Ho: (Bay Bridge traffic reflections) Is this “eat your broccoli” art for the white liberal? The play does find a way through cultural appropriation and extraction that feels close to sensible — through a pretty smart breakdown of what economic parity and reparations might look like, but its resolution comes off as mostly imaginary.
(The screen splits again; Janiak and Ho are once again in each other’s minds.) 
Janiak: But maybe theater can dream the real world forward. 
Ho: I do want to believe that the way out of colonial patterns of economic and cultural extraction is a real culture of mutual aid. Just a little bit of socialism, as a treat.
Janiak: Yum!
L “Colonialism Is Terrible, But Pho Is Delicious”: Written by Dustin Chinn. Directed by Oanh Nguyen. Through Dec. 4. 90 minutes. $20-$75. Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-843-3822. www.auroratheatre.org
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