REVIEW: fu-GEN’s Vietnamese Double Bill Offers Brilliant Additions to a Rich, Emergent Pan-Asian Canon
Christine H. Tran reviews Fine China by Julia Phan and A Perfect Bowl of Pho by Nam Nguyen, a double bill at Factory Theatre. Both new works by emerging Vietnamese playwrights, fu-GEN Theatre Company presents these productions by Saigon Lotus and Hotake Theatre Companies:
In this double-bill at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, Julie Phan’s Fine China and Nam Nguyen’s A Perfect Bowl of Pho make great use of bad timing. From the family drama of Phan’s Fine China to Nguyen’s food-themed musical, these young Vietnamese playwrights—neither over the age of 22—use familiar genres to embrace and resist the trauma of diasporic time. The result is the promising interjection of an emerging Pan-Asian dramatic canon that is polyvocal, poly-temporal, and just plain funny.
In Fine China, black sheep daughter Kim (played by Phan herself) returns home for the funeral of her estranged Vietnamese refugee father (Nguyen himself). She revisits the stormy waters of intergenerational trauma with her little sister Audrey (Nightingale Nguyen), the good daughter who stayed at home. Some critics held this familiarity against the play’s credit.
In my own 2nd-generation Vietnamese opinion, I think Phan lends a specifically Vietnamese texture to this ancient (and colonized) trope of the post-mortem homecoming. Like a fine bowl of pho, Phan’s writing is juiciest when it goes beyond the bones to stew thoughtfully on how time and its passage wreak havoc on Vietnamese settlers in suburbia. Kim’s inability to use a rice cooker (a time-centric appliance that is declared the “most important” tool in a Vietnamese house) is taken as a travesty. Like the failure to observe a curfew, different observances of time in the household touch on a history of power struggles.
The true “villain” of Fine China isn’t miscommunication between father and daughter. It’s bad timing. Audience members can count the ways in which Pham’s script plays with time. In Fine China, time is precious: the sisters’ father sternly admonishes Audrey for studying late with inflections of love, telling her to “đi ngủ” (“go to sleep”) and that she “needs to make better use of her time.” In a fit of rage, he spits out “working a minimum wage job” as the bleak fate waiting for Kim in a world without him. Audrey panics at the prospect of funding her education for the next four or five years. As a scriptwriter, Phan paints the costly experience of moving through capitalist time while Viet. As Fine China deftly communicates, to be a Vietnamese immigrant (or the children of one) is to be out-swimming a series of invisible and colonially-set clocks both in and out of one’s body.
Fine China feels familiar (and not just in its Vietnamese cultural winks to yours truly), but the show’s novelty lies in this attention to the interplay between time and material details. Phan wields sensitivity to how the so-called little things bear the weight of a violent history, and it’s this heart-on-sleeve sensitivity that makes Phan a Viet voice to look out for.
Phan’s acute love of detail pairs well with the sound and stage design of Colwyn Alleston. Auditory ambience that resembles the winds of warfare sync cleverly with the pained wince of a father as he sits down after a confrontation with his daughter; the weight of a decades-old war resounds to the audience via the creak of his bones. With curated touches—like the visible display of brands upon almost everything from bags to food—Alleston’s small stage feels like a lived-in and utterly familiar home. In particular, Alleston’s mix of traumatic sound and domestic props subtly reinforces the special pressure that consumerist culture has pressed upon this already traumatized collection of Model Minorities.
Time is also of the essence in Nam Nguyen’s A Perfect Bowl of Pho, a musical that deconstructs a people’s history as much as it de-essentializes a Vietnamese food dish. Nguyen declares his metatheatrical intent early in his script as the play musically exposits about his (and others’) experiences with the Vietnamese noodle soup. We’re taken from the show’s creative conception in 2016, to the 1800s, to the 1960s, and back. Time revolves around the familiar setting of pho tables. This ebbing and flowing through the complicated history of pho is made comprehensible and wildly entertaining via the musical’s large and endearingly hungry cast.
A favorite showtune of yours will most certainly be “Medium Pho” (it was mine), where performer Victoria Ngai uses her great vocals to pose the time-honored question of whether a girl should consume more pho than her guy on the first date. Also worthy of musical remembrance is the incredibly catchy number “Life is Hard”; as Nguyen’s father, Sai Lan Macikunas absolutely nails the humor, hinting at the trauma and spirit of a hard-working refugee parent taking the narrative reigns of his artsy kid’s work. Both tunes are elevated by the sense of humour in Nam’s text, the strong cast, and the vivid musical direction of Kevin Vuong and assistant Kevin Yue.
Not unlike Fine China, Pho’s musical wit is amplified by careful visual details. Production designer Deborah Lim’s keen eye towards the visual signifiers of assimilation is evident in the inspired choice to put the almost all-Asian cast in large blonde wigs to play white pho voyeurs. The soup’s steam is literally personified by the show’s only white actor (the dynamic Brendan Rush). Rush also stars in a showtune about a white pho cook that rapidly devolves into a Satanic blood ritual—and into what might be the biggest laugh I’ll have in the theatre all year.
If bad timing is ever a problem in Pho, the fault lies in the physical background. The musical is accompanied by a helpful slideshow, which acts as footnotes to the dense history presented onstage. Even from my vantage point in the front rows, however, I often struggled to read all of the text points before the slide—and the play—moved on. This rushed pace is an utter shame; Pho is a show that, like Fine China, lives in the details and elaborations. Director Gianni Sallese, alongside lighting & projection designer Abby Palmer, might perhaps consider better lighting and increasing slide length times, to help render Pho’s visual-aids easier to digest.
By focusing on food dishes, Nguyen highlights the labour that Vietnamese before us have done to survive colonialism. After seeing this double-bill, I told my father—a pho restaurateur himself—that he would really have liked it. I looked forward to watching it again together, sharing some overlap in our professional lives. This was not to be. “Who has the time?” he effectively retorted. Good point, Ba. As a busy pho restaurant owner with many soup-related tasks to perform, he doesn’t exactly have the time to see himself onstage. Theatre—like immigration—is a big investment in time. As we’ve often been told, time is money—and both are accessibility issues. Time to travel, time to get money, time to be there in a theatre far across town: all of these rack up the cost of jobs not taken and work not done.
I’m left wondering: how many actual Vietnamese refugees and their children had the time and space this winter to actually see themselves represented onstage in the Factory Theatre? Southeast-Asians in America experience higher levels of economic struggle than our East Asian diasporic counterparts; when you’re struggling to put real pho on the table, it’s hard to spare time to see a show about dramatic pho—especially in a city ravaged by the gentrification of East Asian neighborhoods. While theatre companies like fu-GEN help Asian dramatists to enter the industry, it’s important to address the degree of work still cut out for these theatres —and their stakeholders—in rendering themselves physically, financially, and temporally accessible to the very traumatized generations represented onstage.
A Perfect Bowl of Pho and Fine China aim to demonstrate how time moves differently for these children of the Vietnamese diaspora. As our bones reverberate with parental PTSD from the Vietnam War, Canadian domiciles—like the one in China—often double as a pastiche of past, present, and lost futures. In a moment that is all to brief, Pho winks to its own timeliness in its running slideshow, comparing the statistics of American sympathy for twentieth-century Vietnamese immigrants against those for Syrian refugees in our twenty-first. Teasing the audience with such moments that beg to be explored with more nuance, Pho is clearly still chewing on its ideas. If given more time to stew on themselves—so to speak—both A Perfect Bowl of Pho and Fine China have a bright future ahead.
Christine H. Tran is a Scarborough-born settler, writer, and scholar of Vietnamese descent. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto Scarborough and a SSHRC-funded MA in English from York University. Her relationship to technology—a fickle, passionate, and endless talk—continues to inform how she writes about race, affective labour, and popular culture in the virtual economy. Her writing has been featured in alt.theatre, untethered, Train, and ATB Publishing’s Outside In anthologies. Most recently, Christine’s work investigates Let’s Play videos and other modes of game spectatorship as automedia. She is entering PhD studies in Fall 2019.