Bi Jean Ngo cooks up culinary culture in new stage show

Bi Jean Ngo
‘In Search of the Kitchen Gods’ hits the stage June 8.
Mark Garvin

Although the City of Brotherly Love is no stranger to a stage show, there are some productions that hit the stage specifically to cook up some unique ideas—literally. ‘In Search of the Kitchen Gods’ comes from actress Bi Jean Ngo and 1812 Productions, and while on stage, Ngo will be showing off her kitchen skills to take audience members through a culinary journey.

Ngo is a veteran in the Philly theater scene, being the 2016 recipient of the F. Otto Haas Emerging Artist Barrymore Award, and also, making her mark as a founding member of the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists. However, her journey to this particular show really started at home.

“About 10 years ago, I was at a point in my life when I was really growing my career as an actor and trying to balance work, life, and major responsibilities. I thought a lot about my parents and the immense responsibilities they always juggled and their struggles early on in the U.S,” Ngo explains. “They managed to raise me and my brothers with a lot of love and laughter in the house. I really wanted to share that sense of joy and possibility with audiences. And then, I let the show marinate for a number of years.”

During that time, the actress’s father passed away. Then COVID happened. After that, there was an onslaught of anti-Asian violence.

“Suddenly, this felt like the right time for me to share this show, which is based on my Vietnamese American family,” Ngo continues. “It’s a show that’s rooted in the desire to feed each other, and in doing so, care for each other.”

Although not a chef, Ngo is a home cook.

“I grew up in the kitchen, standing on a step stool next to my mom while she cooked dinner every night. So, I also learned all the Vietnamese recipes that she learned from her mom, along with her version of spaghetti. I love food, but more importantly, I love that food is a way to bring people together,” she explains. “My family always sat down to dinner together even though my parents worked long hours every day. It was a reason for us to make time and space for connection at the end of each day. So, even now, I cook almost every day, and my boyfriend and I make the time to cook together and eat together.”

Outside of the kitchen, Ngo’s recipe for theater success has spanned two decades. The Northern Virginia native turned local artist first studied filmmaking at Boston University for her undergrad. She then studied acting and got an MFA from The Actors’ Studio Drama School in New York.

“I started as an actor, but I also began directing plays, and in recent years, I’ve loved being part of creating new work as a writer-actor-collaborator,” Ngo explains. “This solo performance project has been a long time in the making. This world premiere is a drastically different work than what I originated many years ago when I first conceived the piece. I think it took a lot of years of life and of doing a bunch of different projects for me to come back to this show and really know what I wanted to do with it.”

‘In Search of the Kitchen Gods’ is directed by Makoto Hirano, and aims to be a culinary journey through Ngo’s Vietnamese American identity, aided and abetted by said Kitchen Gods. Ngo was born and raised here in the U.S. in a suburb of DC, and as she says, that plays into her culinary skills.

“Food was what brought my family together every day. In my Vietnamese parents’ household food was a way to make sure that you took care of your family. We show our love by making sure that everyone’s fed,” she continues. “My culture is really a mix of both American and Vietnamese values and tastes. I think for my household, for Bi, food is a way to get everyone to take the time to sit, eat and chat. You can let down your guard and relax when there’s good food on the table…and that’s a great way to foster big conversations and connections, especially at a time when there’s so much division and lack of trust between people.”

In her solo show, which hits the stage June 8 through June 26 at Theatre Exile (1340 S. 13th Street), Ngo will showcase everything she’s learned at home, under the spotlight and within her cultures to audiences—with a little help from some outside forces.

“Since I’m searching for the Kitchen Gods, I would love for everyone to come see the show to find out who they really are,” Ngo says. “It’s a one-woman play centered on me and my family, and there will be some food involved—but it’s not Food Network. This is not a cooking show. This is theatre, so it’s a play where I talk a lot about food, and it’s going to include some personal stories, some fantastical moments, music and then, some cooking.”

And how has she concocted the perfect recipe of success for the stage?

“Like any piece of choreography or stage business, there is a lot of rehearsal and experimentation. Since this is a theatrical play that I wrote and am performing, there’s also a lot of other physical actions that I’m building into this piece,” Ngo continues. “There are moments of cooking, but there’s also an intricate road map that’s going to be my physical journey every night. So, right now, that’s what my director Makoto Hirano and I working on. We are rehearsing and experimenting everyday in the 1812 studio.”

What is perhaps the most special ingredient of all besides the rehearsals and preparation, is the personal touch that comes with every performance.

“It always feels incredibly vulnerable to bring oneself and one’s own life to the stage. It’s also part of why I love theatre,” the actress says. “Part of what makes acting so special for me is being able to communicate with audiences through the unique experience of live theatre. So, there’s always something personal in what I do. With this piece, I’m sharing a lot of personal stories and perspectives and I’m sharing my family. I love them. So, I’m delighted to make and share this show with audiences.”

‘In Search of the Kitchen Gods’ was born out of Ngo’s residency with 1812’s Jilline Ringle Solo Performance Program, which is dedicated to supporting the creation, development and production of work by female solo artists across a variety of disciplines. But when you’re in the theater at this show, you’re really just at home with Ngo becoming part of the domestic process like she did with her family when she was growing up. You’re just trading the step stool for a seat.

Ngo finishes, “I hope that in sharing my stories and food culture, everyone who comes to see this show can recognize our immense capacity for joy and love, our desire to be seen and understood, and that everyone can celebrate all the ways in which we are fed.”

For information on ‘In Search of the Kitchen Gods’ and Bi Jean Ngo, visit 1812productions.org

More from our Sister Sites