Anthony Doan and Nicole Tung* in Dustin H. Chinn’s Colonialism is Terrible, but Pho is Delicious. Credit: Kevin Berne

Colonialism is Terrible, But Phở is Delicious, Aurora Theatre Company, through Dec. 4

Dustin Chinn’s Edgerton Award-winner, Colonialism is Terrible, But Phở is Delicious, is a biting and scrumptious three-part treat of a play that blends the history of Vietnam and its universally popular noodle soup, pho, with clever commentaries on colonialism, culture and cooking. It’s a layered comedy melange with ingenious insights, excellent acting and fine direction. 

Inspired by in part by the uproar that grew out of a Bon Appétit video of a non-Asian American chef entitled “PSA: This Is How You Should be Eating Phở,” Chinn, a Chinese American author for whom the cultural ownership of food had been an obsession, created a version of the popular Vietnamese soup’s journey over the last hundred years. The scenes shift from 1889 in the then-French colony of Indochina to Hanoi in 1999 to present-day Brooklyn.

In the first triptych, we observe the humorously self-important Madame Gagnier (Elissa Beth Stebbins) and her over-the-top chef (Joseph Patrick O’Malley). They are trying to teach the new southeast Asian cook (Nicole Tung) to make a pot-au-feu (French beef vegetable stew). The Asian house steward (Anthony Doan), with a straight face, smooths over the language and social barriers in the group. The play posits, as some historians do, that the French pot-au-feu might have been a spark that inspired phở.

Anthony Doan, Nicole Tung, and Joseph Patrick O’Malley in Dustin H. Chinn’s Colonialism is Terrible, but Pho is Delicious

The next scene takes place in Hanoi as the U.S. resumed trade relations with Vietnam after the Vietnam War (or what the Vietnamese call the “American War”). In some hilarious exchanges, Anthony Doan plays a fixer trying to accommodate two oblivious Americans (Elissa Beth Stebbins and Joseph Patrick O’Malley) who are in town to assess the Vietnamese people’s taste for Burger King. Nicole Tung again plays a no-nonsense Vietnamese cook who has little patience with the ignorant foreigners for whom phở is a mysterious and weird dish.

Present-day Brooklyn is the site of the last, contemporary piece. Two food-trend-chasing friends (Elissa Beth Stebbins and Nicole Tung) have searched out a trendy restaurant for the perfect bowl of phở. The phở, priced at $45, is served without vegetables or hoisin sauce, much to the annoyance of the Vietnamese American diner. The supercilious server and manager (Anthony Doan) insists that the chef will not allow that addition since the dish is perfect without it. Finally, the white American chef emerges from the kitchen, and an entertaining, sociologically interesting interchange follows on the nature of cultural appropriation and gatekeeping, as relates to food and dining.

Colonialism is blessed with a fine director in Oánh Nguyễn, and the four actors are wonderful, with marvelous accents, body language and comic timing. Chinn’s creation can be savored on many levels, from the broadly comic to the geo-political. There is a lot of meat to relish in his soup.

Live performances of Colonialism is Terrible, But Phở is Delicious at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre run through Dec. 4, 2022. The performance is 95 minutes long, with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required. 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–$66. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre’s website or call 510-843-4822.

Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...