All around us, wise men say, "Embrace change." Yeah, well, you embrace it, wise guys. Many, especially on the margins, don't have that luxury.
This is part of the message of Salt Pepper Ketchup, having a dual run, through Oct. 14 at Passage Theatre in Trenton, and then from Oct. 26 to Nov. 28 at InterAct Theatre in Philly. Gentrification has hit the Point Breeze neighborhood of Philly. And as written by former Point Breeze resident Josh Wilder, Salt is freshest and liveliest when Wilder's Asian, African American, and white characters debate.
Our setting is the interior (persuasively designed by Colin McIlvaine) of Wu's Superstar Chinese-American Takeout, selling Philly-friendly fare slathered in peanut oil, because, according to almost everyone in the play, black folks love it. With spouse Linda, John Wu (played with fearful bewilderment by Fenton Li) has run the store for 14 years. But things are changing: white folks are moving in, and Paul, a canvasser from the new co-op, is trying to get everyone to sign up.
No one is all the way right. Paul (Justin Pietropaolo, who goes from hipster to The Man) sells the co-op as a portal to better nutrition – but it's really geared to the growing influx of wealthy whites. Locals Raheem (Jaron C. Battle) and Tommy (Mark Christie, whose city-wise speeches drive Act 1) have good reasons to resent the new people, but they themselves are involved in some shady dealings. Where Mr. Wu sees all change as a threat, Mrs. Wu (wonderful Chuja Seo) is open to changes in their business and their lives. She draws sympathy – but also wants to move to Chinatown, out of "the ghetto," to be with "our own kind."
CeCe (played by sparking, sparkling Kendra Holloway), John Wu's favorite customer, is excited by the co-op but aghast at its out-of-touch prices. The high point of Salt is her set-piece on pricey produce and a clueless cashier: "Baby, if I wasn't surrounded by all those white folks I woulda clocked that b- upside her head with that $20 apple." Of all the good performances, Seo as Mrs. Wu and Holloway as CeCe are best, their characters most richly drawn. The play's best scene is when Paul and his associate Megan sit down for a "team meeting" with the Wus, trying to hash out a menu and business plan. All the themes go off like firecrackers, and we see each member of this "team" contribute richly to its doom.
Two drawbacks are the play's reliance on stereotypes and somewhat illogical violence. All the black men are in some way criminal. And though we do get some sense of Paul ("I have student loans! … So I live here and I'm trying to make the best out of it! … I'm trying. I'm trying. I'm trying"), his sidekick, Megan, is a smiling, airheaded white stereotype. And we are asked to believe that Mr. Wu, careful man, brand-new American citizen, is ready to jump into some spectacular felonies. The play's ending, just as Mr. Wu is about to make a change, may make emotional sense, but do we think he'll get away with it and be able to keep going? I don't. Still, Salt Pepper Ketchup pounds the hot-button issues, the conflicts between out-of-touch newcomers and priced-out, and often helpless, long-timers.