Monday, January 27, 2020

Getting down with upscale: 'Salt Pepper Ketchup' tackles urban gentrfication

In its current production, Fonseca Theatre Company has made a chamber opera out of the spoken word on the topic of gentrification. It's a hard-hitting blend of arias and ensembles, punctuated by violence of language and action.

Josh Wilder's "Salt Pepper Ketchup" has just another week to go at the company's cozily proportioned new home on West Michigan Street. This kind of show, at home in Daniel Uhde's set design, benefits from the compact focus the space lends to the action. At FTC's Christmas show, I had serious doubts as to whether the space available would ever see any sort of variety show with humor, song, and dance seemto be at home: Pizazz with its shoulders scrunched barely works.

That remains to be seen, of course, and I trust Bryan Fonseca's imagination to to come up with solutions more than my mere speculation as FTC builds a production history. For the time being, however, "Salt Pepper Ketchup" seems both snug and explosive in telling the story of an ambitious Chinese-American restaurateur's struggles to build on the foothold he and his wife have secured in a gritty Philadelphia neighborhood.

The rescue of such neighborhoods often involves unexamined notions of progress. They tend to blur any distinction between left and right as America struggles to make its big cities viable for everyone. In "Salt Pepper Ketchup" the tensions around a challenged community's upgrade have reached the boiling point. In this show, they are concentrated in an eatery, carrying the bravado-charged name of Superstar, that its proprietor proudly calls "a Chinese joint."

Paul argues the case for the new co-op as the Wus' path to success.
John Wu, played  by Ian Cruz, realizes that the American dream is expensive, but he has a strong enough sense of the bond he has built with his black neighbors to be skeptical of the promised benefits of change. Those have been extended to him by Paul, an agent for an upscale co-op making headway nearby, in the midst of ominous signs that the area could be boosted beyond the means of its residents. Robert Negron plays the role with blinders-on, gift-of-gab smoothness, invested in the message of health and collective decision-making well beyond the point of forging genuine connections with the target demographic.

Directed by Tom Evans, the show stokes the tensions expertly. There is a pervasive lack of trust: Mr. Wu, responsive enough to the neighborhood to keep his prices low and to include in his limited menu such departures from authenticity as chicken wings, knows the need for a Plexiglas barrier to separate customers from the kitchen and for a dining-room security camera, even if it doesn't work. Long suffering under her husband's reflexive sexism, Linda Wu, played by Tracy Herring with a nice balance of frustration and easily kindled upward mobility, brings out the family-disintegrating potential of abrupt social change.

CeCe, portrayed with sass, hope, and energetic skepticism by Chandra Lynch, is a single mom open to improvements in her surroundings. She is a potential ally of the resistance, but clearly not likely to undermine innovations if they appear to benefit her. Holding on to the neighborhood's current condition despite its deficits are Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron "Gritty" Grinter), an edgy duo who mesh well in this production. They are somewhat offset by Boodah, a homie more into meditation than payback, interpreted as a questionable guru by Dwuan Watson Jr.

The interaction of the four black characters amounts to a neatly painted group portrait representing a community used to getting the short end of the stick. They have understandable difficulty interpreting the arrival of the glitzy co-op and ancillary projects like condos and coffee shops as anything but reverse white flight. Except for Boodah, they are prone to letting their short fuses get touched by flame. More willing to be unnerved by neighborhood hostility than the tightly focused Paul, Megan (Lexy Weixel) represents the cluelessness of white-led do-good projects that have focused financing behind them. Understanding their milieu definitely comes in second. 

"Salt Pepper Ketchup" is a title that identifies the usual condiments that come with a Superstar takeout order. They symbolize the ordinariness of down-at-the-heels urban life, thrown in along with fortune cookies. That life's stability was perhaps never a sure thing, but the promise of sudden change turns out to have at least as much threat behind it as anything that will serve the perpetual appetite for hope. Even those of us in more stable circumstances respond to hope's hunger pangs: "Salt Pepper Ketchup" vividly outlines the compromises and risks that people under the constant challenges of poverty and racism routinely face.

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