Michele Lee’s accomplished play Broth Bitch uses a podcast format to follow the life of a “vegan soup goddess”, says Robert Reid
Using the podcast format to tell a story that spans several decades, Broth Bitch – written by Michele Lee and directed by Ming-Zhu Hii with Maia Thomas playing the titular character – is the ongoing online memoirs of Nikki Sukpraserit, self-proclaimed “hottest vegan soup goddess this side of the equator”.
Right out of the gate, Nikki asks us if we’re sitting listening with a bowl of her soup in front of us, and says if we’re not, we must immediately pause the recording, go to her website and make the recipe she has there. I really wish there was a website I could go to for this. Or a recipe to be up on the Broth Bitch site. I very much want to do what she says, cook the soup and then sit listening and eating.
Instead I sit with a cup of coffee.
Nikki runs a vegan soup pod cast called Just Fucking Love Yourself. It’s clear from even the first episode that things haven’t gone entirely well for her. Having opened a successful restaurant based on her practice of the Broth Bitch – a social ritual in which 10 to 12 people gather at someone’s house, eat soup, give thanks and then complain about whatever is bothering them – she has left the business and started her own podcast instead. A podcast in which she does the same thing virtually, sharing recipes and guiding the listener through the thanks and the bitching.
Much of Nikki’s bitching is focused on Rosa De Fazio, the cofounder and now sole owner of the Broth Bitch Restaurant. It’s a very, very sweary podcast, mostly venting Nikki’s spleen about how the business of Broth Bitch transpired. As with the soup recipes, there is no Rosa De Fazio, unless you count the Edmonton-based mortgage broker or the school teacher in Reading – yes, I googled to be sure this wasn’t referring to someone from the real world food industry. If I’d waited another episode I would have worked that out from context.
On the following day’s podcast, Nikki has gotten drunk the night before and made her way to the shopfront where Broth Bitch used to be. It’s a vegan burger joint now, and we learn that Rosa has sold the business. Rosa is doing food boxes, a kind of upmarket Hello Fresh, and Nikki is selling curry pastes at the markets along with doing the podcast. She mentioned Rosa’s food box in the previous episode, and has reviewed it online giving it five stars. This is presumably what sent her over the edge into drinking the night before. She skips the soup today and goes straight to the bitching. Nikki is still very bitter about the whole thing.
She tells us the story of how she came to leave Broth Bitch, on the night of huge charity event Soup for Change, for which they have been invited to make the soup. After planning and running the entire proceedings, Nikki tasted the soup for that day, decided it tasted wrong and demanded it be entirely thrown out and everybody sent home. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the soup itself, except the toxic situation that has been growing between Nikki and Rosa. When Rosa refuses to throw it out Nikki storms off, hires a lawyer and quits the business.
Wednesday’s podcast shoots us into the future, Nikki is recording in 2021, celebrating her first anniversary of podcasting. She’s also no longer vegan. She confesses to us that she’s started eating dairy again the way one might admit to getting a DUI. This change is brought on by the fact that Nikki is trying to get pregnant. This confession is harder for her to make than her fall from Vegan wagon and it’s no surprise that Rosa, whose website Nikki is still face-stalking, has already had a child.
Nikki sounds so disappointed with herself.
Thursday’s podcast skips us forward into 2023 where Nikki has spiralled even further into her growing depression. She has been away from the podcast for a while, she’s lacking motivation and hasn’t even put up a recipe. Instead, we’re instructed to eat whatever we’ve got. She reads us her emails, starting predictably with one updating her on Rosa’s activities. Rosa, through an intermediary, has sent her condolences on the passing of Nikki’s mother. Nikki’s thoughts for the podcast are scattered by the raging bushfires threatening that have trapped her in her house – I get a very clear picture of what the orange sky outside her house must look like – and naturally she’s dwelling on sickness and death.
Friday and it’s 2027. Things seem to have improved a great deal. Nikki’s more upbeat and tells us about her new practice of catering for wakes, which began at the end of the previous episode (back in 2023) when she received an email enquiry about doing exactly that. The podcast seems to have shifted again, now calling suppliers, ordering and talking about produce and letting us listen in to her various other daily calls.
Thankfully, Rosa no longer casts such a long shadow over Nikki’s life. Still, she finds time to call Rosa and leave a message for her (she can’t speak directly to her because she’s under house arrest in Italy for reasons that are unclear).
I’m not totally sold by her new podcast approach, recording phone calls that she makes through the day and broadcasting them. It’s clear that she does this a lot as everyone she speaks to on the phone asks if she’s got them on the podcast right now (apparently, you don’t have to have someone’s permission to put your side of a conversation you have with them on your podcast if they can’t be heard.)
In the world of the narrative, as a podcast, I don’t think I’d find it as engaging as the idea of eating soup while listening to stories and complaints. As for the dramaturgy, I’m just not convinced it’s a good way to move the story forward. To be honest, it feels a little lazy. Want to introduce a new character, a new narrative thread? Just get them to call in. Tonally it shifts the relationship the show built with its audience and to me seems more like a device than a development. Maybe if it had been introduced earlier…
Saturday brings us to 2041. She’s back in contact with Rosa and they’re now engaging in a regular correspondence. In fact, Nikki has come to Italy and is waiting see Rosa, who is under house arrest now and presumably has been since 2027. Nikki talks about the things that have lead them both here, especially the troubles Rosa got herself into which have been on an international scale. Rosa has been protesting and campaigning against food companies and government policy, even being accused of inciting violence, so that now, waiting in the car to see her, Nikki talks about the reaction to whatever it is Rosa has done, and there is a lot of blowback on social media – a lot of it calling her an actual demon – which I believe is par for the course on social media already. Still this episode ends tragically for Rosa as Nikki still in her car, watches as Rosa’s daughter Ella leaves the house, gets into a car with one of the protesters and leaves, abandoning her mother.
Finally, on Sunday, it is 2063. Nikki, in her later years, is still running her podcast and answering questions emailed in by her listeners. The only email today is from Ella asking how Nikki is and what she’s up to. Nikki sounds older and tireder but not without the fire she’s carried through all seven podcasts. She’s moved to what sounds like a farm – I’m guessing it’s the hippy commune share house she mentioned investing in the previous episode – and Rosa is living there with her after serving her time and paying her fines.
Ella has yet to see her mother since she left the house arrest in 2041. After a series of questions about her mum, Ella finally says she’d like to come see her, some time, when she’s ready. It’s some kind of rapprochement for Ella and Rosa at least, but while Nikki has made peace with her resentments and regrets, she is left without a resolution. On thinking back over the whole podcast, over the years we’ve travelled with Nikki, she’s never seemed like she was the centre of her own story. So much of her life has turned on Rosa de Fazio. It’s tempting to say the Broth Bitch story isn’t really Nikki’s story so much as it is Rosa’s, except for all the detail its described in the actual information we get about Rosa is fairly scant.
Lee’s writing does a good job of sounding like one woman’s stream-of-consciousness podcasting, but it’s technical and accomplished. The way little things Nikki says casually give away so much of her back story is masterful, and the performance by Thomas feels very real. The nuanced attention to detail in the telling of this story and the minimalist approach to “staging” it, as it were, with a few sparse diegetic sound effects, speaks to the precise directorial eye of Hii.
There’s a website where you can listen to all the audio files and, since it’s a stand-alone sitee, it’s still up there so you can still go listen. I’ve no idea how long the Broth Bitch website is going to stay up now Fringe is over, but it’s certainly worth a visit. I just wish there were real recipes to go along with it.
Broth Bitch, by Michele Lee, directed by Ming-Zhu Hii, sound design and composition by Russell Goldsmith, performed my Maia Thomas. Presented as part of Melbourne Fringe. At brothbitch.com.au