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Philadelphia native Josh Wilder's Salt Pepper Ketchup explores ethnic and economic tensions in a gentrifying neighborhood. InterAct Theatre Company's staging is coproduced with Trenton, New Jersey's Passage Theatre, where the new play ran in September.
John Wu (Fenton Li) and wife Linda (Chuja Seo) operate a Point Breeze Chinese restaurant — or rather, as John admits, a "Chinese joint." Colin McIlvaine's authentic-looking set details its familiar bleakness: greasy walls, plexiglass safety shield, faded generic photos of typical Chinese-joint entrees.
The ironically named "Superstar" is a hangout for local residents: streetwise Raheem (Jaron C. Battle) and troubled Tommy (Mark Christie) plan drug deals, local junkie Boodah (Richard Bradford) schemes for handouts, and loyal customer CeCe (Kendra Holloway) buys her fried-in-peanut-oil lunch every day.
When white Penn grad Paul (Justin Pietropaolo) shows up selling memberships in his new organic food co-op, he's treated with scorn and derision. His pitch is absurd to people barely making ends meet: buy a $100 membership for the privilege of paying $2 for one organic apple? Plus, his organization renames the neighborhood "Newbold." Ominously expensive condos are springing up around the corner.
Lively debate ensues, but shit gets real when the co-op buys Superstar's building, becoming Wu’s landlord. Paul wants to make the restaurant trendy and expensive, pricing out its neighbors. Linda longs to leave "the ghetto" to be with "our own kind" in Chinatown. John stubbornly denies that change is inevitable.
Eloquently expressed passions and contrived circumstances build to violence that changes everything. (Though otherwise impressively choreographed by Jacqueline Holloway, a climactic gunshot seemed quiet and rushed on opening night.)
It don't come easy
Act II jumps ahead several months. During intermission, McIlvaine's set transforms from decrepit corner shop to garishly decorated bistro. "It's so fucking Chinese," John says in dismay about the generic red lanterns and fans.
Miriam White arrives as Megan, the co-op's cloying Community Relations Coordinator, trying in vain to mediate between Paul, who turns controlling and cynical; flailing John, who rebels against everyone, even his crafty wife; and simmering CeCe, who comes looking for work but burning for a showdown.
Though director Jerrell L. Henderson leads a fine cast who skirmish with passion and conviction, Wilder's script falters. There are wide holes in a crime plot. One character suddenly reveals an unlikely secret identity. Yet another simply disappears. Ridiculously, salt, pepper, and ketchup are never mentioned or used.
While Salt Pepper Ketchup convincingly portrays the well-documented issues of gentrification, Wilder passes on providing even a glimmer of hope for positive outcomes, settling for a dramatic yet inconclusive ending destined to make everything worse.
What, When, Where
Salt Pepper Ketchup. By Josh Wilder, Jerrell L. Henderson directed. InterAct Theatre Company. Through November 18, 2018, at the Drake's Proscenium Theater, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.
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