After the fall of Saigon, a childless couple, Harold (Paul Winfield) and Dolores Williams (Mary Alice), adopt a Vietnamese brother and sister, ages 6 and 10. Those tentative first years are shown in a series of telling flashbacks during the course of Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, but what’s fascinating is just how much goes unsaid in this very close-knit family.
That is, until 20 years later when a casual visit to the Williams home finds Dwayne (Chi Muoi Lo) finally proposing to his girlfriend Nina (Sanaa Lathan) and Mai (Lauren Tom) dropping a bombshell: She’s found their mother. The arrival of Thanh (Kieu Chinh) from Vietnam to southern California puts the contradictions of Dwayne and Mai’s lives in sharp relief.
The strengths and faults of Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (the main dish in an Asian meal Dolores prepares for Thanh’s arrival) lie squarely on the shoulders of writer-director-actor Chi Muoi Lo. On the plus side, he effectively explores the very different ways the siblings have assimilated (Dwayne calls the Williamses Mom and Dad, while Mai addresses them as Dolores and Harold), makes their mother a strong individual whose ideas of family ties are at odds with her children’s expectations, and explores the mixed emotions of adoptive parents who see an embrace of the past as a rejection of what they’ve contributed.
Lo’s weaknesses include his own performance (he’s often hammy in the style of a broad stand-up comedian who can’t tone down) and distracting subplots (Dwayne’s straight-arrow roommate dating a transvestite). Worst of all are a series of lame comic fantasies which are meant to express Dwayne’s various anxieties, but only serve to make emotionally real moments — particularly the interplay between the superb Paul Winfield, Mary Alice and Lauren Tom — all the more welcome.
At its best, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce is a classic American tale of reconciliation, of understanding where you came from while accepting where you belong.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
E-mail Serena Donadoni at firstname.lastname@example.org.