In ‘Dinner and Cake’ at Everyman Theatre, a tense culture-clash satire

The world premiere of DMV-based performer and playwright Tuyết Thị Phạm’s Dinner and Cake is a robust play that units up a well-known context—in-laws from totally different cultural backgrounds engaged in an ungainly dinner collectively—with a quietly devastating denouement. Directed by Everyman Theatre’s affiliate creative director Paige Hernandez, the household drama is a personality examine in miscommunication, the issues finest left unsaid, and emotions of wishing to belong. It’s additionally an understated satire that discusses colonialism, capitalism, cultural appropriation, white saviorism, and white feminism via stilted conversations.

Dinner and Cake is about in Washington, DC, in 2000, on the one-year anniversary of the wedding of Matthew and Thuy, who’re absent on account of a delayed flight. The Trầns have flown in from Vietnam for the celebration hosted by their inlaws, the Drummings. Mỹlinh, who has simply moved to DC, agrees to behave because the translator for the prolonged uncomfortable dinner. Coaxed by her white boyfriend that this favor could profit her early profession in regulation, Mỹlinh has no thought what’s to return when she joins the 2 {couples} for cake and tea on the Drummings’ dwelling.

Helen Hedman as Mrs. Joyce Drumming and Tuyết Thị Phạm as Mrs. Trần in ‘Dinner and Cake.’ Photograph by Teresa Castracane Pictures.

Within the opening scenes, Mỹlinh, performed with heat, sarcastic asides, and occasional exasperation by Carolina Đỗ, meets Joyce and Murray Drummings at their dwelling to await the arrival of the Trầns. Whereas the Drummings lived in varied Asian nations for over twenty years on account of Murray’s diplomatic work, they reveal that cultural connection doesn’t translate to understanding. For instance, they lived in Vietnam for over three years and by no means realized to talk a phrase. This is the reason they depend on the Vietnamese American Mỹlinh to function their translator. The Drummings’ have to be popular with the Trầns borders on pathological.

Murray repeatedly invades Mỹlinh’s private house whereas additionally fetishizing the great thing about Asian girls; he’s a myopic clod who’s so culturally insensitive that he has by no means realized to pronounce his daughter-in-law’s identify appropriately, at the same time as Mỹlinh patiently makes an attempt to show him. Bruce Randolph Nelson makes use of his tall stature to bodily dominate his scenes with Đỗ.

Shockingly, Joyce is even worse than her husband, appropriating Asian clothes and non secular rituals, then shedding white tears every time she is questioned or confronted for her ignorance. Helen Hedman performs this half effectively, generally cooing and petting Mỹlinh because the well-intentioned white lady, however in a giant blow-up within the third act, she releases the “Karen” and turns into a merciless and petty portrait of white ignorance and vanity.

Bruce Randolph Nelson as Mr. Murray Drumming, Helen Hedman as Mrs. Joyce Drumming, Định James Đoàn as Mr. Trần, Tuyết Thị Phạm as Mrs. Trần, and Carolina Đỗ as Mỹlinh, in ‘Dinner and Cake.’ Photograph by Teresa Castracane Pictures.

The night begins off poorly with the Trầns, who’re rightfully offended that they wanted to take a taxi when the Drummings refused to drive to Dulles throughout rush hour. As Mr. Trần, Định James  Đoàn is taciturn however observant, attuned not solely to the feelings of his spouse and Mỹlinh’s discomfort but in addition extra cognizant of the Drummings’ boorish conduct than it first seems. And the native playwright Tuyết Thị Phạm does double responsibility enjoying Mrs. Trần—sardonic and annoyed within the first act, questioning within the second act, and heartbreaking within the third act once we be taught extra about how a lot she misses her daughter. (As we be taught, the short marriage between Matthew and Thuyet might not be the romantic whirlwind it first seems to be.)

On the heart of all that is Mỹlinh, who—like Phạm—moved to america at a really younger age as her household sought asylum as refugees on the finish of the Vietnam Warfare. As translator, she covers matters as banal because the drive into DC (though humorously retold by Mrs. Trần) and as heated because the Vietnam Warfare (of which Mỹlinh’s just lately departed father had shared little). Fluent in each languages and cultures, Mỹlinh decides what to state straight, what to paraphrase, and what to exclude. In supertitles, the Vietnamese is translated into English, however very importantly we hear the Trầns and Mỹlinh converse in Vietnamese all through the play.

Định James Đoàn as Mr. Trần, Tuyết Thị Phạm as Mrs. Trần, Carolina Đỗ as Mỹlinh, Helen Hedman as Mrs. Joyce Drumming, and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Mr. Murray Drumming in ‘Dinner and Cake.’ Photograph by Teresa Castracane Pictures.

In the course of the course of the awkward meal at a Thai restaurant, Mỹlinh is handled like an Different by the Drummings, who ask her to serve them, and grilled by Mrs. Trần about her personal marriage prospects and courting white males. Performed deftly by Carolina Đỗ, who code-switches in her demeanor and gestures in addition to languages, Mỹlinh begins to acknowledge her dual-cultural standing and what’s left behind, and to mirror upon her latest determination to maneuver throughout the U.S., leaving her ailing mom in her brother’s care, to be along with her white boyfriend. In her playwright observe, Phạm writes that “the fixed psychological negotiation to reconcile who I used to be with who I assumed I wanted available taken its toll… I make artwork to grasp the distinction between the 2.”

In some ways, the play hearkens again to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In that 1967 movie, which grappled with the Civil Rights Motion and up to date interracial courtroom instances, akin to Loving v. Virginia, the white Draytons are initially upset to satisfy their daughter’s Black fiancé. Over the course of the movie, the 2 households come to an uneasy however hopeful settlement over their kids’s upcoming nuptials, conceding that whereas the younger lovers make one another blissful, the couple was going to face discrimination and hatred from many others. (The evolution of the characters even exhibits the resistant white matriarch firing her longtime worker who makes racist remarks, one thing we all know Mrs. Drumming would by no means do.)

In Dinner and Cake, there may be not a cheerful conclusion: the play realistically delays any reconciliation, progress, or acceptance. It raises a collection of questions that Phạm articulates in her director’s observe, and it leaves the long run between these characters unknown. We have no idea how or if the Trầns and Drummings will restore their tense relationship. We have no idea if Mỹlinh will rethink her personal latest familial, profession, and relationship selections. We by no means see Michael and Thuyet collectively to see if their marriage could have longevity and happiness. As a substitute, the play’s concluding moments concentrate on the Trầns in a quiet embrace the place they consolation one another.

Dinner and Cake is stuffed with misunderstandings, troublesome conversations, tense silences, and sure—moments of humor, too. Come for the awkward household dinner and keep for the world’s ugliest cake of white privilege.

Operating Time: 90 minutes with out an intermission.

Dinner and Cake performs via October 2, 2022, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets ($29–$69), name the field workplace at (410) 752.2208 or buy them on-line. Field workplace hours are Monday to Friday from 9 am till 6 pm, and Saturdays from 10 am till 5 pm.

This system for Dinner and Cake is on-line right here.

COVID Security: Masks are inspired however not required for attendance. Everyman’s Information to Patron Well being and Security is right here.