Tastes like gentrification: Play ‘SALT PEPPER KETCHUP’ examines food injustice in South Philly

“He who owns the food owns the land.”

“He who owns the food owns the land.”

Understatedly delivered in the first act, the dialogue resonated throughout the Drake Theatre during InterAct Theatre Company’s latest production, “SALT PEPPER KETCHUP” – a new play surrounding gentrification in Point Breeze written by Josh Wilder, a native from the community in which the story is set.  

But, the urban fight for food, land, and ultimately, survival, surpasses well beyond the walls of the Center City black box theater.

For Wilder, a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts and Yale School of Drama, approaching the contentious topic of gentrification, an omnipresence in Point Breeze, signified more than sleek facades and playground renovations.

Rather, he examined the controversy through another lens – sustenance, probing into what’s being consumed and who’s providing it.

“I think the core concept was the idea that people in underprivileged and underserved communities can’t afford fresh food,” Wilder said. “A core thing I wanted to talk about is why aren’t there any healthy food stores in Point Breeze in my neighborhood. … When it comes to food and who deserves access to food – I found that very important.”

With a Chinese take-out restaurant at 22nd and Ellsworth serving as a backdrop, the play delves into a cultural triangle of intersectionality, exploring the experiences of not only longtime resident African Americans clashing with newer white populations but also elevating the existence of immigrant business owners who are often neglected in the gentrification equation.

The story follows Mr. and Mrs. Wu, owners of Superstar Chinese Take-out, as they’re faced with whether or not to surrender their business to a trendy food co-op infiltrating the neighborhood. Simultaneously, tensions arise with African American members of the community also striving to reclaim their turf, including trying to sell produce out of the back of a truck.  

“Chinese stores are ubiquitous to black neighborhoods,” Wilder said. “They’ve been around for a very long time, so I wanted just to see, or to really examine, the relationships that black, Asians and whites have in terms of what’s happening in Point Breeze right now – this really weird hierarchy when it comes to who is able to have their own businesses in which neighborhoods.”

 

As the co-op seeps into the recently created community of “Newbold,” another real-life discord, Wilder unravels the psyche of the Wus, local African American residents and affluent white gentrifiers.

For audiences, it’s challenging to differentiate the protagonists from the antagonists, as all three populations are as sympathized as they are villainized.

“Here, you have a play on gentrification about forces clashing, about people fighting for their lives,” said Fenton Li, who plays John Wu. “You see all three sides and they’re all speaking truthfully what they feel and how they perceive. And, we get to see both their validity as well as their arrogance, their lack of appreciation for what the other sides are seeing.”

Wilder, who has developed and produced original works in theaters and festivals across the country, including the New York Theatre Workshop, Great Plains Theatre Conference, The Kennedy Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and 2015 O’Neill National Playwrights, to name a few, initially encountered a co-op system during his Jerome Many Voices Fellowship at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis where he was actually the first national recipient of the opportunity.

He recalls purchasing only a few items even though the total was $15. The whopping bill brought Wilder back to his childhood in Point Breeze, remembering the scarcity of food sources, especially healthy options.

“For me, it’s about abundance of resources, because, you have an abundance of resources, whether that’d be healthy food or not – that’s some kind of abundance of nutrition, which also can turn into an abundance of power,” he said. “Because, for me, nutrition can be power. … It’s about resources and food as a life resource. And if you only get the scraps of a life resource, then what type of life are you trying to sustain?”

The play, which was recently recommended for a 2018-2019 Barrymore Award, has already made its mark across the United States. After initially being workshopped during Wilder’s Jerome Fellowship in Minnesota in 2014, the piece had a workshop production at the Yale Cabaret, followed by a workshop production at Bay Area Theatre Company in San Francisco and then had its 2018 world premiere at Trenton’s Passage Theatre, which co-produced the play with InterAct.

And in May 2019, the piece, which is still undergoing revisions, will have yet another production with the Fonseca Theatre company in Indianapolis

Although Indiana audiences may not grasp the gaumet of South Philly references embedded in the play, Wilder stresses that the specificity of the piece will actually breed universality, as food injustice, gentrification and racism, are patently not exclusive to Point Breeze.

For Wilder and the cast, “SALT PEPPER KETCHUP” is not necessarily intended to spark concrete solutions but rather serve as a vehicle for folks to view life from the other side, even if that simply means saying hello to your new neighbor.

“Whether or not we agree with the way in which people do things is one thing but to actually be able to sit down in a space and hear what someone else’s humanity is saying in regard to their experiences is important,” said Kendra Holloway who plays CeCe, an African American single mother. “And that is hopefully what audiences will get – that people have intentions and most intentions, nine times out of 10, are good … but along the way, things happen. People are hurt or misunderstood. People are silenced in some shape, form or fashion. And, those good intentions, while still there, sometimes getting to the resolve of that is not always pretty. Luckily, what this play doesn’t offer is necessarily a real answer. It gives us somewhat of a journey to how we might have gotten to this point. And, I think it’s up to the audience to figure out – what do we do now?”

SALT PEPPER KETCHUP | Through Nov. 18, Drake Theater, 302 S. Hicks St. interacttheatre.org/salt-pepper-ketchup.

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