Theatre Review: A Perfect Bowl of Phở

From U of T’s Drama Festival to Factory Theatre, Nguyen’s play doesn’t miss a beat

Theatre Review: <i>A Perfect Bowl of Phở</i>

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Halfway through fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company’s production of A Perfect Bowl of Ph, actress Kenley Ferris-Ku appears onstage as a waitress in war-era Vietnam. She delivers a monologue that is informative and sincere, telling of how she served ph to American soldiers by day and hid Vit Cng soldiers in the attic by night. It is a monologue about the Tet offensive and the legacy of the restaurant that hid those soldiers. It is also a monologue about ph itself. For this reason, it serves as a good entry point to the show, and it is as near to perfect as this ‘ph show’ gets. Ferris-Ku’s performance is confident and firm, and playwright Nam Nguyen’s dialogue is no less powerful.

The scene is also unlike anything else you’ll see in a show filled with meta-theatrical gags, lightning-fast rap numbers, and dialogue that jackhammers at the fourth wall.

Ph is not so much a distinct narrative as it is a variety show honouring the eponymous dish, with every cast member skillfully juggling several roles, occasionally even trading places with one another. Tying it all together is the arc of the playwright himself, played — mostly — by a wry and witty Kenzie Tsang, as he works out the show from its inception to the final product.

The audience is made to feel like what it is seeing is a work in progress, which isn’t entirely false. First showcased at U of T’s 2017 Drama Festival, fu-GEN’s production is the third iteration of the show — each one markedly different from the last. Questions of what the show is even about and whether it’s getting its message across are discussed openly onstage.

Yet, rather than bringing in new dimensions, these moments can read as overly didactic lessons on dramaturgy and do more to bar the audience from engaging fully and critically with the show. As someone who knows admittedly very little about Vietnam, I think the show would benefit from more scenes like Ferris-Ku’s, and fewer tangents into self-doubt.

In a show that does a brilliant job of being simultaneously entertaining and educational on the subjects of Vietnamese culture and history, Ph triumphs when it is sure of itself.

Watch as an extremely outgoing little girl (Meghan Aguirre) unleashes a lyrical torrent about bringing ph to school for World Cultures Day and you can’t help but be mesmerized. Watch as a white devil of a trendy ph chef (Brendan Rush) tears off his shirt to squeeze lime juice over the pentagram on his chest and you’ll be peeing yourself with laughter. Watch — or more accurately, read — an unflinching experiment in exposition as a gruesome story of Vietnamese refugees set adrift is projected onto an otherwise motionless stage and you will marvel at the risks that this show is willing to take with its material.

Despite its occasional missteps, there is no denying that A Perfect Bowl of Ph is a compelling piece of experimental theatre that you don’t want to miss. This latest iteration is the strongest yet — a good sign for the future if it’s as much of a work in progress as it claims to be. This show may indeed be well on its way to becoming a perfect bowl of phở.

A Perfect Bowl of Ph and Fine China are playing as a double-bill at the Factory Theatre until February 10.

Theatre review: UC Follies’ Les Frères

The show represents the culture of Haiti through family struggles

Theatre review: UC Follies’ <i>Les Frères</i>

Rating: 4/5 stars

The UC Follies’ ended their 2018 season with the outstanding production, Les Frères (The Brothers). The play was met with resounding cheers and a standing ovation during the opening night on a snowy November Thursday.

Les Frères is a dramatic and cultural story that integrates loss and personal obstacles, but one that follows a Haitian-American family in New York and is performed in English. Written by Sandra A. Daley Sharif, directed by Abigail Whitney, and inspired by Lorainne Hansberry’s Les Blancs, it depicts the struggles of a family and country against the effects of colonialism.

“This play has provided me with the chance to stage a story that mirrors scenes in my life. Scenes that I know so intimately growing up as part of the Haitian diaspora,” Whitney wrote in her director’s note.

The show’s focus is on three brothers who are forced to confront each other after spending years apart. Upon being reunited with each other when their father becomes ill, Christophe (Kato Alexander), Jean Caleb (Kwaku Adu-Poku), and Fedji (David Delisca) must navigate the aftermath of their father’s death, recall their mother’s earlier suicide, and face the tensions between the three of them.

The brothers are of Haitian descent and grew up together in Harlem, New York. However, they have all taken very different paths in life: Christophe is a scholar who now studies at Harvard University and has met Barack Obama, Jean Caleb has his own family and is out saving the world as a doctor, and Fedji is a Jehovah’s Witness who lives nearby in Brooklyn.

Despite the challenges of a small cast size, the actors were able to carry the show with constant dialogue and quick-witted exchanges to keep the audience interested. Rob Candy gave a compelling performance in his role as Mr. Brent Ewens, a family friend, adding energetic and compelling conversations to the poignant storyline.

Alexander, Adu-Poku, and Delisca deliver their lines with the perfect amount of emotion which allows the audience to effectively empathise the pain and trauma of the young men. This is particularly apparent during the scene when the three brothers argue among themselves directly following their father’s death.

Traditional music connected Haitian culture and the sombre mood of the show. especially during intense scenes and discussions Instruments, like a bongo drum and rain stick, were played by Mosa McNeilly to create matching sound effects.

The set design is conventional, detailing the kitchen and living areas of the brothers’ childhood apartment. It is complete with a fully stocked fridge, bookshelves, and a table filled with Christophe’s endless awards and trophies.

While the various scenes of loss are not easy to watch, rare moments of humour and the closeness of family offer some respite. The production is impressive in its adaptation of the original play, enhancing minor moments while keeping the key elements and true message of the story intact.

As a whole, the show succeeded in bringing the story and its significance to life through the drama of the scenes and strong actors onstage. The culture and heritage of Haiti was well represented and accessible for such a diverse Toronto audience.

The pitfalls of counter-representation

From Indigenous reconciliation to free speech advocacy, we must cautiously examine how challenges to the status quo are portrayed in the post-truth universe

The pitfalls of counter-representation

Representation is necessarily misrepresentation. When an elite claims to reflect the complex interests of whoever they deem to be ‘the people’ — a people imagined to be singular —  institutions of power frame, define, and pursue the populace’s interests. Representation, in this sense, means simplification, homogenization, and reduction.

By creating a singular imagination and truth, representation marginalizes narratives that dominant groups find uncomfortable, and centres that which is palatable and affirming to the people.

The popular imagination of Canada — which is portrayed as a nation of diversity, openness, and tolerance — is one such representation that now faces challenges to its rhetoric in the form of counter-representations. In an era where governments are now speaking openly and frequently about reconciliation, the most relevant source of counter-representation is that of Indigenous peoples.

At the University of Toronto’s Art Museum, Cree artist Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience exhibit told some of the stories that were necessarily lost in the forging of a Euro-Christian imagination. Whereas the nationalist celebration of Canada points to 150 years since Confederation this year, Monkman starts our story from 300 years ago and examines the colonial history of Canada from an Indigenous lens.

Paintings like “The Subjugation of Truth” and “The Scream” were among the exhibit’s dark, absurdist, and poignant animations of residential schools, urban violence, and land dispossession, demonstrating the intergenerational persistence of colonialism that continues to this day. These counter-representations remind us that the birth of Canada has two legacies: one that celebrates the creation of a Canadian identity, and the other that mourns the erasure of Indigeneity from the landscape.

To look past the singularity of representation and truth is to challenge the status quo and demand change. Fortunately, at U of T, Indigenous cultural counter-representation is more visible than ever. Re-Indigenized street signs, the REDress Project on campus, which draws attention to the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the Powwow and Indigenous Festival are among the most conspicuous examples. President Meric Gertler’s public embrace of the 32 Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations for the university in January projects bright possibilities for reconciliation.

One should, however, be hesitant to conclude that we are now moving past representation and embracing truth in its plurality — in its counter-representations. Quite to the contrary, the new culture of counter-representation can be used to obfuscate the persistence of representation and its colonial functions. For instance, Indigenous visibility at the university is meaningless if Gertler continues to refuse to divest from fossil fuels, since that refusal sustains the drastic impact of climate change and undermines the environmental stewardship worldviews that underline Indigenous self-determination.

In a recent CBC piece, Clayton Thomas-Müller defines “redwashing” as the process by which corporations and banks sponsor Indigenous visibility in the Canadian imagination to overshadow the destructive initiatives that they impose upon Indigenous lands. In other words, we now face the appropriation of Indigenous counter-representation to advance the original project of colonial representation.

This space of plural truths, and the perverse contribution of counter-representation to the advance of representation is not just exclusive to the Indigenous context. Around the world, the cascade of disillusionment with the status quo and elitist establishment has emboldened self-proclaimed alternative political movements that claim to speak for a majority of people.

However, rather than empowering marginalized narratives — like the colonized Indigenous do through counter-representation — the idea with these movements is that the majority identity narrative is itself marginalized and needs revival.

Enough analysis has been conducted about right-wing populism in the form of Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen. However, its local replicas on campus are worth noting as part of the broader pitfall of counter-representation. This is especially true for figures like Professor Jordan Peterson and former Reboot candidate Micah Ryu: although they hold different levels of power, each has exploited counter-representation to advance the original intent of representation, which is to exclude and erase marginalized narratives.

Peterson occupies a high level of power on campus as a tenured professor. His conflation of gender self-determination with totalitarianism this year is well-noted — but it remains staggering how his counter-representation narrative frames the fact that the majority is allegedly marginalized and needs protection. The staunch opposition that he faces from the transgender community and their allies has been framed as an assault on free speech rather than a defense of human dignity.

Indeed, by many proponents of free speech he is lauded as a hero, earning him thousands of views online and numerous media appearances, more than doubling his income, and exporting him to other university campuses like McMaster and Western.

Peterson finds himself connected to a transnational, trans-campus free speech movement, where the refusal of campuses to host the exclusionary vitriol of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos grants the movement legitimacy by an ironic claim of victimhood. It is an infectious phenomenon, by which views that uphold the colonial status quo representation — whether it be the gender binary or the Muslim ‘Other’ — are framed as counter-representation, resistance, and freedom. Indeed, the loss of the right to oppress has now become oppression in and of itself.

Likewise, in UTSU student politics, Reboot presidential candidate Micah Ryu led a campaign that used this growing anti-establishment “outsider” framework to advance exclusionary politics. His criticism of student politics as the domain of an elite group of insiders is ostensibly consistent with the exclusivity of representation. However, his solution via austerity measures that would have cut down and decentralized the UTSU as a means of accountability only sustains the status quo de-politicization of the organization.

In fact, We the Students presidential candidate Andre Fast condemned the suggestion that the UTSU should remain distant from equity issues, and pointed out that, disappointingly, the union has become depoliticized this year. He stated that the union “does have a really big role to play on issues of social and environmental justice, on affordability issues” — all issues that matter most to marginalized students.

Ryu’s personal Queerphobic comments in light of this year’s gender identity controversy, and his campaign’s hostility toward the Black Liberation Collective’s condemnation of anti-Black racism within the UTSU only further demonstrates the bankruptcy of this anti-establishment narrative.

What’s more, in response to the accumulation of demerit points that led to Reboot’s eventual elimination, some students reacted in a way that suggested that this allegedly anti-establishment party was a victim and martyr of the establishment — inadvertently excusing Ryu’s otherwise inexcusable behaviour. Yet, Ryu’s exclusionary behaviour and pledges to de-politicize the UTSU under an anti-establishment outsider narrative have hardly helped the most anti-establishment outsider students on campus — Black, Muslim, and Queer folks — all of whom need more support from the student body given the events that occurred this year.  

What we can take from this is that it is necessary to challenge dominant narratives that become culturally objective, to shed light on marginalized narratives, and to turn discomfort into productive change. Indigenous resurgence on campus reminds us that counter-representation is possible and powerful.

However, we should also be wary of certain counter-representations that insidiously uphold and even deepen oppressive structures of power that correspond to the original exclusionary logic of representation. In this era of alternative facts and multiple truths, we should fight for a future that captures the imagination of the heretofore unrepresented.

 

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His column appears every three weeks.