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The smell of fish sauce whacks you in the face as you enter the basement-level venue at Theatre Exile, now hosting 1812’s world premiere of actor/creator Bi Jean Ngo’s brisk and engaging solo show, In Search of the Kitchen Gods.
Ngo is joyfully preparing all her ingredients, greeting the audience, and making small talk. The set is a relatively simple show kitchen, the kind you see on old-school cooking shows. The vibe is more personal than that: less Rachael Ray, and more stepping into the kitchen with an old friend.
A gift to audiences
Ngo is an able and versatile performer who has been steadily working in Philadelphia for as long as I can remember. I was particularly moved by her wonderful performance in Interact’s The Chinese Lady last November, and enjoyed her in the Arden’s spring 2022 production of Backing Track. 1812’s development of Ngo and this piece, stretching back a decade with the Jilline Ringle Solo Performance Program, feels like a gift to audiences.
It is a treat to hear directly from Ngo, to be welcomed into her kitchen. With director Makoto Hirano, Ngo has created a (excuse the metaphor) theatrical dish that brings together puppetry, story-telling, songs, and cooking to create a multi-sensory taste of one particular immigrant experience.
Using shadow puppets, the traditional Vietnamese story of the kitchen gods is interwoven through the play’s narrative. From there, Ngo tells the audience the story of her complicated relationship with Vietnamese food. We learn how the recipes traveled with her cosmopolitan parents as they escaped Vietnam. She describes the way in which this food, sometimes sour and pungent, made her feel othered growing up in the suburban United States. Finally, she shows how this food and the ritual of cooking is what connects her to her heritage. Now, Ngo is certainly not the first artist to understand and communicate the deep connections between food, diaspora, and the immigrant experience, but she does it well.
A winning performance
Ngo’s greatest strength is that she is a winning and likable performer. She bounds across the stage, unafraid to get zany, sing songs, or lean in to the absurd. Her broad (and loving) imitations of a neighbor and a far-flung aunt are particularly effective and funny.
Ngo and Hirano keep the pacing brisk. After a quick 75-minute dash around the kitchen, you are left hungry for more, and grateful to be sent home with some Vietnamese home cooking to try yourself. Audience members can take home a small cup of chicken or tofu and rice that was cooked during the performance.
What, When, Where
In Search of the Kitchen Gods. Created and performed by Bi Jean Ngo, directed by Makoto Hirano. Through June 26, 2022 at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St, Philadelphia. (215) 592-9650 or 1812productions.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and a photo ID are required to enter the Theater Exile venue, and masks must be worn inside the theater, which are available in the lobby for those who need one).
Theatre Exile is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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