“Salt Pepper Ketchup” examines the effects of gentrification

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Scene from
Scene from "Salt Pepper Ketchup" at Trenton's Passage Theatre
See Salt Pepper Ketchup before its brief run is over

The Passage Theatre Company in Trenton kicks off its 33rd season with Josh Wilder’s play Salt Pepper Ketchup. This drama, a co-production with Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company, is set in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia. It explores the slow yet intrusive effects of gentrification on a neighborhood, not only on the existing residents, but on those moving into the area.

Scene from "Salt Pepper Ketchup" at Trenton's Passage Theatre
Scene from “Salt Pepper Ketchup” at Trenton’s Passage Theatre

The story is set in the Superstar Chinese restaurant, owned by immigrants John and Linda Wu (Fenton Li and Chuja Seo) who, as the play opens, are celebrating their new American citizenship. We meet regulars CeCe (Kendra Holloway), a feisty single mother; her cousin, Boodah (Richard Bradford); and Tommy and Raheem (Mark Christie and Jaron C. Battle), two local hoods. John is concerned with the effects on his business of a newly-opened food co-op. He is annoyed by the efforts of Paul (Justin Pietropaolo), one of the white newcomers to Point Breeze, to recruit new co-op members in his restaurant. Things come to a head over a conflict between CeCe and the co-op, setting off a chain of events over the course of the next year.

"Salt Pepper Ketchup" is at Trenton's Passage Theatre
“Salt Pepper Ketchup” is at Trenton’s Passage Theatre

Director Jerrell L. Henderson, who brilliantly staged last season’s Caged, again leads an outstanding cast in strong performances in this play. Probably the strongest performance is that of Fenton Li. His portrayal of the frustrated John Wu is tempered by glimpses of the man’s fear of losing all he’s created and his anguish in facing inevitable changes without knowing how to adapt. Mr. Li’s performance is matched by Chuja Seo as Linda Wu, the long-suffering wife who finally takes charge of business over her husband’s stubborn objections, and Justin Pietropaolo as Paul, the all-too-common idiot child who paves the road to John’s personal hell with only the best intentions. Finally, Kendra Holloway’s portrayal of CeCe is riveting. She creates a strong and proud member of the neighborhood who finds herself being barred more and more from the urban pioneer Eden her home is inevitably becoming.

Don't miss "Salt Pepper Ketchup" at Trenton's Passage Theatre
Don’t miss “Salt Pepper Ketchup” at Trenton’s Passage Theatre

As for the play itself, it has a strong central idea and more than a fair mixture of humor and pathos. However, it is still a work in progress with some rough spots in the script. The production will be moving to the InterAct Theatre after this run ends. Further revisions to the play there should make it the strong study of a neighborhood in not-entirely-welcome transition that this production promises.

The Passage Theatre Company is to be commended in presenting this work. A strong cast, firm direction, and a story with dramatic impact and relevance awaits the serious playgoer at the Mill Hill Playhouse in downtown Trenton. I urge such playgoers to see Salt Pepper Ketchup before its brief run is over.

Salt Pepper Ketchup is presented by the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton through October 21, 2018. For more information, go to PassageTheatre.org.