Ultra Vires


A Conversation with the Playwrights Behind Fine China and A Perfect Bowl of Pho

A play and musical, respectively, on love, family, identity, and good food

Left to right: Nam Nguyen, Nightingale Nguyen, Julie Phan all star in Fine China.
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz, courtesy of  fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company.

Fine China is a three-hander drama that tells the story of an estranged daughter, Kim Vu, returning home for the funeral of her father.

Playwright Julie Phan stars as Kim, while Nam Nguyen plays her father. Nightingale Nguyen (no relation) plays Audrey Vu, the other, more “successful” daughter, who is initially hostile to Kim’s return.

Past and present blur together as the story unfolds. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn why Kim left the household, and what compelled her to return. Phan makes room for humour in this powerful story of family, love, and forgiveness despite dialogue that at times feels forced and heavy.

Left to right: Meghan Aguirre, Justin Park, Jacob Peng, Max Gu, Sai Lian Macikunas, Victoria Ngai, Nam Nguyen, Kenley Ferris-Ku in A Perfect Bowl of Pho.
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz, courtesy of  fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company.

A Perfect Bowl of Pho is a funny musical that tells the story behind the popular, Vietnamese, rice-noodle dish, featuring a twelve member cast and a six-piece live band.

Given the ambitious scope, the production sometimes felt more like a revue than a complete musical. However, playwright Nam Nguyen manages to tie the disparate scenes together with cheeky fourth-wall breaks and dynamic musical numbers. The latter includes “Medium Pho,” which tells the story of a girl embarrassed about ordering a larger bowl of pho than her date; “Life is Hard,” which talks about both calculus and a refugee’s story; and “Coming Home,” a song about identity and family. The story manages to be sincere and moving, despite its healthy dose of chaos. But then, such is life.

Fine China is written and directed by Julie Phan. A Perfect Bowl of Pho is written by Nam Nguyen, directed by Gianni Sallese, with music by Wilfred Moeschter and Nam Nguyen. The shows are presented by fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company and they are produced by Saigon Lotus and Hotake Theatre Company.

Fine China has been previously presented at The Woodlands School, as well as the Toronto Fringe Festival. A Perfect Bowl of Pho won the President’s Award for Best Production at the University of Toronto Drama Festival and was later presented at the Paprika Festival.

The double bill of Fine China and A Perfect Bowl of Pho runs until February 10 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide Street West). Tickets are $30 at www.factorythreatre.ca or (416) 504-9971.

Interview with Julie Phan

Phan is an eighteen-year-old graduate of The Woodlands Secondary School in Mississauga and currently studies general arts at McGill University. She is the daughter of first-generation Vietnamese-Chinese immigrants to Canada.

Ultra Vires: Tell us about this double bill with A Perfect Bowl of Pho. What are the common themes that connect the two shows?

Julie Phan: There is a lot of love, in both these shows, that is stated in a way that isn’t explicit. With Fine China, the way you are with your family, you don’t say you love each other but a lot of your actions are motivated by love. Whereas in Pho, I get the similar feeling of love expressed through food or in other ways, whether through communal dinners or ways that don’t involve you saying “I love you,” but it’s there.

UV: Fine China was inspired by your own relationships with your family, is that right?

JP: Yea. It was mostly inspired by my relationship with my father and my relationship with my sister, and how their relationship had an effect on me. When my sister was closer to my age, she and my dad got into a pretty big fight that ended with them not speaking and my dad telling me that I wasn’t allowed to speak to my sister. So, there was a point in time where for a year or two years, I wasn’t speaking to my sister. I didn’t know why but I was just listening to what my father was telling me. When I did reconnect with her later, and I found out what happened, I felt guilt. That guilt helped inspire Fine China.

UV: You use flashbacks in time to tell the story. Can you tell us a bit about that?

JP: When you think back on the past and maybe on regretful actions that you’ve taken, you don’t remember things linearly. Your brain picks up on moments and words and sentences that really build up and are based on how you feel about how you remember that time. I think, with the flashbacks, even though something happened in the past, objectively, they’re just remembered in very different ways between the two sisters, where one was living in it and being alienated, while the other just doesn’t have the full picture. Even though Kim was living in it and she was the one experiencing screaming with her father, there are things that you don’t want to remember. So, you don’t, until you kind of have to dig that back out.

UV: What’s next for you after the show finishes its run?

JP: I should probably go back to school (I haven’t been to class since winter break). I’m applying to the National Theatre School’s playwriting program. Fingers crossed.

UV: So I guess more writing is in store for you. Do you like the writing more or the acting more?

JP: I’m probably better suited as a writer.

UV: There was a little bit of a happy ending in the story. Did you have a chance to make up with your sister?

JP: Yes, we eventually started talking again. The relationship didn’t get fixed right away but I did let her back into my life and it kind of fixed itself as time went on.

Interview with Nam Nguyen

Nguyen is twenty-one years old and also graduated form The Woodlands School. He currently studies drama at the University of Toronto. His parents are first-generation Vietnamese-Canadians.

UV: Did your interest in writing musicals start at The Woodlands School?

NN: I started liking musicals when I was around fourteen. We did Les Misérables at school and I was like, “Hey, I can do this; this is easy!” (laughter) It’s actually very hard.

UV: This is the third time that Pho has been produced. What was the decision to bring it back? And to pair it with Fine China?

NN: It was really David Yee, the artistic director of fu-GEN [Asian Canadian Theatre Company], who reached out. It just happened to be a neat coincidence that two of the young Vietnamese-Canadian playwrights in Toronto right now happened to go to the same high school and have worked together in the past.

UV: What’s special about this show?

NN: There was a scene that we swapped out—Scene 8. That is all new for this run. That was really based on the input of the artistic director. The scene we had before was very funny but it was substituted in a way so that we could talk about what we want to talk about versus the easy jokes we could make.

UV: The show has a very dynamic range of highs and lows. The show overall is very meta. What was the inspiration behind writing the wide range of emotions in this musical?

NN: It’s hard to say what the drive behind that is other than to show people what the story is. In the end, when you have the idea to do this show; you have a story that you need to service well. There is this education dimension to it that is kind of weird in some senses—like, do we always want minorities to be educators in Canadian culture or whatever, but that is very much there, because a lot of the audience doesn’t know these things and a lot of history is involved. So, it is in a lot of senses just presenting the story of what happened and real life will work itself into the play. It doesn’t have to be funny and it doesn’t have to be sad. Whatever it is, you just have to tell it.

UV: Besides the parallels between Vietnamese-Canadian identity in both Pho and Fine China, are there any other parallelism we can draw from the two showings as a double-billing?

NN: The really nice thing is that they contrast each other. Fine China is very down-to-earth family drama. It is very much about representing a family dynamic that you could reasonably see existing. It does remind me of some elements of my own family in some ways. Pho is much larger-than-life and it casts a much wider net of human history. Because it covers such a larger thing—larger in the sense of scope—the emotional content is very different. It can afford to take so many different styles. Fine China has this very specific style that I think balances out the whole billing.

UV: There’s this funny scene where your dad is telling a story where he works at Pho Hung, where the owners took the waiters’ tips. Is that a true story?

NN: Yes, but don’t tell them that I told you that. I still eat there (laughter). [Editor’s Note: A manager at Pho Hung says all the tips are pooled into a pot before they are divided between the wait staff.]

UV: What’s next for you?

NN: I’m not sure what comes next, to be honest. I need to graduate first. I’m in my fourth year out of five [at U of T]. It’s hard to say.

UV: Between the acting side and the writing side, which one do you like more?

NN: The thing is, I started writing from a place of “What would be really funny for me and my friends to perform?” I’ve tended to act in my shows that I write as well. I would say writing is more my wheelhouse.

UV: Anything else our readers should know?

NN: Come see the show! It’s a real spectrum of Vietnamese-Canadian theatre, which is having a really good year this year.

UV: One last thing. On the record, what’s your favourite place to have pho in the city?

NN: Damn, that’s hard. My favourite place is Pho Tien Thanh [57 Ossington Avenue, at Queen Street West]. It’s a little pricier than most of the ones in Chinatown but it’s very legit.

UV: And what would be the dish that you get there?

NN: Pho tai nam. The rare beef flank. It’s the dish we order in the show.

The above interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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