Brand new comedy at Chance spotlights ownership and food appropriation
By Libby Nicolay
Chance Theater is excited to be continuing their 25th Anniversary Season with a delightful new play by Dustin H. Chinn, “Colonialism is Terrible, But Phở is Delicious,” a comedy that explores the history and pilgrimage of phở, the ever-popular and delicious Vietnamese noodle soup. Chinn’s latest creation, aptly titled and covering more than one hundred years of the soup’s lifespan, will lead audiences down the rabbit hole of cultural food traditions and how they muddle and evolve alongside history.
“I’ve had a really weird career,” Dustin H. Chinn warned. Starting out in the sketch improv world, Chinn transitioned to writing plays after joining the distinguished Ma-Yi Theater Company Writers lab - home to, as Chinn impressively puts it, “the largest collection of Asian American playwrights in the history of recorded spacetime.” Fortunately for him, the group included celebrated writers like Qui Nguyen, Lauren Yee, and Mike Lew, among others, and Chinn wrote and finished his first full-length play under their tutelage. “So that’s why I made the transition from what I like to call being a sprinter to a long distance runner,” he quipped.
Chinn claims he’s “fairly allergic” to writing straightforward dramas and draws on his comedic background for his storytelling. “I think improv informs so much of it,” he said about his writing style. “My philosophy is using comedy as an entry point to difficult discussions.” Most of Chinn’s plays tackle different slices of the Asian American experience, while still remaining funny and lighthearted. “I think a skill that I’ve cultivated is trying to be funny without necessarily telling jokes,” he said. “I think that’s a lot of where my creative impulse comes from.”
“Colonialism is Terrible, But Phở is Delicious” was inspired by an internet video once posted by Bon Appetit, wherein white American chef Tyler Akin tells viewers how they should “properly” be eating Vietnamese phở, stating that adding sauce to the broth destroys the dish. The video caused an online uproar and has since been deleted, but the situation left Chinn thinking about the touchiness of ownership over traditions, both culinary and artistic, and how colonialism has affected our global culinary history. He wondered where the boundaries of food appropriation lie, if at all, and how we can respectfully cross those boundaries while honoring cultures outside of our own.
The play first emerged back in 2017. It received several readings on the east and west coasts before landing in the hands of Chance’s Artistic Director Oánh Nguyễn, who directed one reading and saw promise in Chinn and in this story that lent itself well to Orange County’s vast Vietnamese-American population. After a recent stint at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, Nguyễn brought the play to Chance for the continuation of its rolling world premiere.
The play follows the fuzzy origins of phở, presented in three parts which take place in three different eras: 1880s French Indochina, 1999 Saigon, and present-day Brooklyn. Chinn chose to center this play around Vietnamese food specifically because there’s a “recent history of people coming in and not only colonizing the country, but the food itself adapting to those colonial forces.” Because of the French occupation in Southeast Asia, many believe phở to have been adapted from the French stew pot-au-feu, which further raises questions about culinary history in general and who can claim ownership over dishes that change hands and migrate across cultural boundaries.
So, can people be allowed to explore and learn new things, even call themselves a master of such things, outside of their own culture? “I think cultural appropriation in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing,” Chinn argued. “I think it’s how you choose to acknowledge and give back to the people who’ve helped educate you.” In the case of Chef Akin, the issue was less about him making or selling phở as a white man, but rather about the implications of him claiming authority over a right or wrong way to eat it.
“Colonialism” marks another world premiere for Chance Theater, whose radar for new plays continues to strengthen with every season. Founding Artist Casey Long spoke about the Chance’s new works initiatives and about the importance of supporting emerging playwrights and unheard stories. “It’s really important that the voice keeps evolving in the American theatre,” Long said, adding that supporting the growth of the American canon increases diversity and representation in our future storytelling. This play, for example, features two dynamic Vietnamese lead roles, a detail that is still rarely seen.
There’s something special about staging a Vietnamese story in the heart of Orange County, home to the world’s largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. Chance Theater is hoping to seize the opportunity to engage with this nearby community and allow them an opportunity to come and see themselves represented on stage.
Long, who is also in the cast, is most looking forward to the post-show talk-backs with the cast and audience after each performance. The talks give the audience a chance to ask questions and add to the conversation about ownership and food appropriation. He eagerly noted, “This is one that I think is going to generate really interesting dialogue.”
Chance will also be hosting an AAPI Community Night on April 15th, with receptions both before and after the performance. The event will feature several AAPI community organizations who will also be joining the cast for the post-show talk-back. “We’re looking to do that for our other shows this year as well,” Long said. “We really feel like a major part of the role that a non-profit theater can play is to engage its community and tell stories that are going to resonate.”
Chinn said he hopes to see this play spark questions and conversations that continue long after the play ends, and hopefully over a local bowl of phở. As a Seattle-raised, New York native, he was quick to gush over the extra bit of something only found in true, SoCal phở. Chinn put it simply, “There is nothing like Orange County phở.”
Libby Nicolay is a writer, literary manager, and local theater enthusiast working in the entertainment industry throughout Orange County.
‘Colonialism is Terrible, But Phở is Delicious’
Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center
5522 E. La Palma Ave, Anaheim, CA 92807
March 31 - April 30, 2023