Minna Lee's big launch — 'My Home on the Moon' at SF Playhouse

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday January 30, 2024
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Lan (Sharon Omi - center) celebrates the new year with lion dancers (left - Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, right- Will Dao) in San Francisco Playhouse's 'My Home on the Moon' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)
Lan (Sharon Omi - center) celebrates the new year with lion dancers (left - Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, right- Will Dao) in San Francisco Playhouse's 'My Home on the Moon' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)

"I can't imagine I'll ever eat an algorithmic cookie and love it," declared queer playwright Minna Lee, whose "My Home on the Moon" is currently having its world premiere production at the San Francisco Playhouse.

"Eat a what?!," you may wonder.

But, as a resident of the San Francisco area, where higher math and high-falutin food are both subjects of common obsession, you are surely intrigued.

Lee offered this fanciful locution during a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter about the themes and development of their science fiction-tinged play, in which artificial intelligence meets culinary culture.

Playwright Minna Lee  

"I've read about several businesses that are experimenting with AI technology already," Lee explained. "They're having Michelin-starred chefs come in, and using AI programs to record the entire cooking process. Not just the recipes, but the temperatures, the techniques, every little detail. The ultimate goal is to be able to exactly recreate dishes using the algorithms that emerge from this kind of study."

Not only dubious about such projects' prospects, Lee takes umbrage at their conceit.

"The idea that a creative process like cooking can be reduced to a series of calculated algorithms is not only disrespectful; it also takes away the magic."

Lee draws a comparison to computer programs designed for matchmaking:

"The idea that you can know what somebody is truly like, that I could know exactly who you are by reducing you to algorithms, takes away a lot of nuance and complexity."

What's the opposite of an algorithmic cookie? Soul food.

(L-R) A food critic (Will Dao) samples cuisine, watched by Lan (Sharon Omi), Mai (Jenny Nuygen Nelson) and a camera person (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) in San Francisco Playhouse's 'My Home on the Moon.' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

Noodles with nuance
"My Home on the Moon" is centered around a pair of Vietnamese women of two generations who work at a struggling pho restaurant in the midst of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

After a mysterious business consultant arrives on the scene, things seem to be taking a turn for the better. In fact, they're taking a turn toward the surreal.

A play that starts out feeling like an urban slice of life rapidly evolves into a speculative epic, replete with sinister computer simulations, alternate reality, corporate villainy, seemingly sentient noodles, and, yes, the moon.

It's a conceptual cousin of the Oscar-winning movie, "Everything, Everywhere, All At Once," both in its emotionally realistic portrayal of contemporary Asian Americans and its playful intermingling of the fantastic and the mundane.

But when asked about works that influenced the play, Lee immediately singles out "Tampopo," the sly 1985 Japanese film comedy about a roadside ramen shop that, like "My Home on the Moon," finds depths of emotion in cooking and eating.

"I think of food as a kind of ancestor," said Lee, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam and Laos. "When a recipe has been passed down through a family over generations and you're making that dish, you're working with an ancestor.

"Experimenting with food and cooking has given me a vessel in which I can be more involved with my culture," they continued. "I can labor in a craft that so many people have done before me and so many others are still doing today."

Lan (Sharon Omi) and Mai (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) struggle to keep the restaurant afloat in San Francisco Playhouse's 'My Home on the Moon.' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

Making it big
While Lee enjoys cooking, their primary craft is writing. "My Home on the Moon" is their first full-length play to be produced, but they've written several others, along with short fiction and animated film projects.
They never shy away from writing outlandish, potentially unstageable concepts.

"My playwriting practice is grounded in an idea I picked up from a workshop," said Lee. "I just let my mind spray and play as if I had a $50 million dollar budget. Through the funnel of development, a production is going to get scaled down to whatever the budget needs to be.

"But it's much more exciting to get started thinking about a $50 million dollar idea than a $5 idea. So, I always start by thinking big."

That big thinking endured through the play's development, despite setbacks.

"Because I wrote this play during the pandemic lockdown, that policy got exaggerated even further. Nothing was being staged at full-scale, but there were plenty of readings happening and lots of audio plays being produced, so I felt like there weren't any limits on my imagination. I gave myself permission to go as far out as I possibly could."

'My Home on the Moon,' through Feb. 24. $15-$125. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (415) 677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org

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