Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Anthony Doan and Nicole Tung
Phởto by Kevin Berne
Is cultural appropriation always a bad thing? It's certainly caused a fair bit of angst in contemporary culture, and it's important to understand how what can feel like innocuous assimilation to a dominant culture can be a very different experience for a minority culture or one that is under colonial rule. In Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious, by Dustin H. Chinn, which opened this week at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company in a world premiere production, cultural appropriation turns out to be a lot more complicated than most people–on both sides of the equation–might be willing to admit.

Inspired in part by a brouhaha that developed when the magazine Bon Appétit magazine posted a video on its site of a non-Asian Philadelphia chef entitled "PSA: This Is How You Should be Eating Phở," Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious dives headfirst into the subject of appropriation in a way that is enlightening, entertaining, and often very, very funny.

Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious is told in three parts in three distinct time periods: 1889 Hà Nội, 1999 Hồ Chí Minh City/Saigon, and present day Brooklyn, each showing how step by step, the quintessential Vietnamese noodle dish phở has become, in the words of one of the (white) characters, "the new ramen," a dish once virtually unknown in this country but now found in virtually all but the most backwater burgs. As a longtime phở-natic (I so miss the long-departed Vi's, a joint in Oakland's Chinatown that served the finest Vietnamese food I've ever had, and counted famed restaurateur Alice Waters and California governor Jerry Brown among its regulars), I slurped up this show with the gusto that phở itself–with its almost mystical blend of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami–deserves.

If you've never had traditional phở, it's made by preparing a rich beef broth, adding rice noodles, herbs and beef–sometimes thinly sliced filet that is added raw and cooks in the hot broth, sometimes beef balls or tripe, sometimes all three. (There are chicken versions of phở, as well, called phở ga.) It's usually accompanied by an array of condiments and sauces: basil, bean sprouts, lime, hoisin, soy, chili sauce (usually sriracha). These are then added by the diner to customize the soup to their individual taste. Unless, as in the third section of the play, you run into a chef who insists his broth is perfect as it is and does not provide any of the generally standard condiments.

But we're jumping ahead here. In the first part, set in late 19th century Hà Nội, a French colonial noblewoman (Elissa Beth Stebbins) is lamenting the impending loss of her French chef Guillaume (Joseph Patrick O'Malley), forcing her to hire a new cook, a local Vietnamese woman named Thuy (Nicole Tung), who has been recommended by her steward, Nguyen (Anthony Doan). Guillaume wants to impart some of the knowledge he gained studying at Le Cordon Bleu to Thuy–who has no desire to be indoctrinated into a new cuisine. But once she and Guillaume make a pot au feu, Thuy admits French food is "not as revolting as I thought."

It was about this time that phở first began to appear in Vietnam, in part because the French colonialists brought cows to sate their appetite for beef. But, as street vendor Mùi (Tung) says in part two, set in Hà Nội City, "The French may have brought their cows. The Chinese may have invented noodles. But phở is uniquely Vietnamese." It's 1999, Vietnam is slowly opening up to foreigners, and Quang (Doan) works for the National Administration for Tourism, who has brought two Americans to Mùi's cart for some authentic local flavor. When these two southerners (who may or may not have ulterior motives) sit down to their phở, they ask how it should be eaten. Mùi barks "Eat it the way you want to." "That's the beauty of phở, Quang offers.

But that's not the beauty of phở for Chris (O'Malley), a chef who is serving up phở in a trendy Brooklyn spot where the soup goes for $45 a bowl and comes only one way–the chef's way. This causes quite the dilemma for Julie (Stebbins), a food blogger and her friend Danielle (Tung), a woman of Vietnamese heritage who absolutely refuses to eat phở without a healthy dollop of hoisin sauce, and it becomes a battle of wills between a stubborn foodie and an equally stubborn chef who both want things done their way.

If this sounds like a lot of plot, worry not–Chinn's text simply rockets along, with important questions and intriguing conflicts pulling us in at every step of the way. (Oanh Nguyen's direction is seamless–the work he's done is hidden, but somehow readily apparent.) Chinn's characters are well developed and distinct, showing us how both how insidious and delightful is appropriation when it comes to something as delicious as phở. He has also structured the play so that when characters are speaking Vietnamese, the actors speak in standard American accents, but speak with exaggerated French or southern accents to represent other languages. This makes for some terrific comic moments, especially in part one.

Chinn's play is well served by a fantastic cast. Nicole Tung is especially brilliant in each of her three roles. As the cook learning French cuisine, her eyes flash with righteous indignation when those around her fail to respect her skills, then glisten with glee when they taste her food and those skills become undeniably evident. She's simply brilliant at every step. Anthony Doan knows precisely how to milk the comedy from Chinn's text, and he handles the shifting between accents with deftness and skill. While O'Malley and Stebbins may press too hard when playing a pair of business colleagues in part two, they are both perfect in part three: Stebbins as a foodie slightly self-conscious of her obsession; and O'Malley as a chef who believes he is always doing things the right way.

I've always wondered whether I was eating phở the right way (lots of basil and lime, no bean sprouts, no hoisin, but a touch of sugar and a light squirt of chili sauce), so it was nice to hear that my way is the right way–for me. And while, like the American couple in part two, I may feel guilt over what my country did to Vietnam, I'm glad relations are on the mend, and I hope the Vietnamese people don't mind too much that we have taken phở into our hearts–and stomachs.

In short, Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious is a delectably entertaining 95 minutes of theatre–one that might send you right down the block to the newly opened Phở Tasty to appropriate your own bowl of Vietnam's national dish.

Colonialism Is Terrible, but Phở Is Delicious runs through December 4, 2022, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $20-$75. For tickets and information, please visit or call 510-843-4822.