Meet the Cast: "Aubergine"

Tania Thompson
 | Oct 06, 2019
Aubergine Cast

THE CAST: Irungu Mutu, Luzma Ortiz, Sab Shimono, Jinn S. Kim, Bruce Baek, Joy DeMichelle and Jully Lee.

Honest, truthful, relatable, touching and beautiful are all words that one cast member in Julia Cho’s Aubergine (Oct. 19-Nov. 16, 2019) uses to describe the play. Aubergine is the story of Ray, a Korean-American chef, who returns home for his father’s final days. The seven actors in the cast are a mix of those familiar to South Coast Repertory audiences and those making their debut. They are Obie Award-winners, Broadway veterans, children of aging parents and more. They also know the power and comfort of family, tradition and food. Read on to meet the cast.


Bruce Baek
I portray
Uncle. He travels all the way from South Korea to visit his dying brother and faces some unseen, yet unavoidable, conflicts with this nephew.
This is my SCR debut!
My other credits include Members Only, Under Protest, Model, “Taken” (NBC), “High Maintenance” (HBO), “Deception” (ABC), “Jessica Jones” (Netflix), “Power” (Starz) and the forthcoming indie film, The Architect.
Aubergine is more than an incredibly written play; to me, it is an amazing real-life tale, because almost everyone can relate to this heartfelt story. It illustrates some of the most universally recognized circumstantial themes in one play—food, family, farewell, friendship, father, failure and faith.
In this play, my character speaks almost only in Korean. The toughest part is how to be able to resonate—literally—with the audience and the other characters in the play with this huge language barrier. At the same time, what amazes me is that how the story manages to sustain its mesmerizing harmony of the characters with such delightfulness, honesty and soulful transparency.
My favorite childhood memory is about toys. As an only child, I was able to enjoy as many toys as I could get my hands on. My parents tried to get me almost every toy I wanted to have, but not until my reason for getting another new toy was truthful and convincing. In the end, I managed to get what I wanted, but they did not make it easy. That didn’t matter, because I always enjoyed finding a new reason for a new toy.
My favorite childhood food
was kimchi fried rice.
As an adult, my favorite food is what I am eating now. That’s my favorite. Because it could be my last meal. So I tend to enjoy each meal fully, with joy and appreciation.


Joy DeMichelle
I portray
This is my SCR debut.
My other credits include Sweat, Stonewall Jackson’s House, Raisin in the Sun, The Water Hole, Seven Guitars, Blues for an Alabama Sky, The Piano Lesson, Spirit North, Harriet’s Return, Darker Face of the Earth, “For the People,” “Criminal Minds,” “Lie to Me,” “Judging Amy,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” American Gun and Taking Back Our Town.
The story of Aubergine resonates with me because I love the journey of self-discovery that Diane takes while finding what really feeds her soul.
What’s most compelling about the play is how love and deep desire for understanding surface in the transformative powers of aging and dying. I’m delighted by how past memories are shared and new memories created through the experience of delicious food.
Growing up in Kentucky, dessert was my favorite dish because I loved bonding and baking with my mom. Honestly, there were so many delicious desserts from my childhood that it is hard to narrow it down to just one. I remember on Holidays my mother and all eight of her sisters would bake practically everything imaginable. Desserts would be spread all over my Aunt Deenee's table and countertops. There was no way anyone could ever taste them all in one sitting. The awesome thing is everyone always knew they were leaving with something other than what they brought. Together the women in my family could cover all of the southern classics from Hummingbird Cake, German Chocolate Cake, Sock It to Me Cake, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Italian Cream, Rum Cake, Chess Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, Banana Pudding, Bread Pudding, Pecan Pie, Red Velvet Cake and on and on. If I had to choose just one, it would have to be the 30-Day Friendship Cake. And yes, it actually takes 30 days to make.
The 30-Day Friendship Cake. I was 12, the air was clean, seasons had a schedule, kids played outside and my mama always had something good to eat. One Saturday morning, sometime in the fall, the Friendship Cake pre-mix was on its 30th day, ready and waiting for our mother-daughter bonding and baking session. After mixing and baking, we carefully placed the cake on a rack to cool. I put on my jacket and went outside to complete my weekend chores of raking leaves and sweeping the sidewalk. Just as I was bagging my last bit of leaves, my friend, Stacey, comes down the street and says, “My momma wants to know what does your momma have good to eat?” We ran in the house, “Mahmuh... mama, Ms. Robyn wants to know what do you have good to eat... and can I go outside to play?” As I wash my hands, I notice my mom cuts the entire cake in half and carefully places it onto another plate. Wrapping it in plastic, she says, "Stacey, here you go baby, take this to your mama,” Stacey says, “Wow, what kind of cake is this?" My mother with the most beautiful smile says, “It’s called a Friendship Cake.” Stacey and I dashed out of the house, in the distance we hear my mom, “Ya’ll be careful with that cake.” And off we went, eager to make our delivery of love and friendship, so we can enjoy the crisp, clean autumn air and play in the beautiful orange, red and yellow leaves. Later, when I got home, the phone rang, my mom says “Hello...” All I could here on the other end was, “"Giiiiirl, that cake was the bomb!” and they both burst into what sounded like a symphony of laughter.
My favorite food now is king crab legs, with season butter, and lemon-garlic mashed potatoes.


Jinn S. Kim
I portray
Ray. He’s a talented chef, who has an almost magical sense for knowing what food or meal a person needs. However, he is struggling to believe that himself, since his father has never accepted him as a chef. And now, at the age of 38, having drifted away from his father, Ray receives a call that his father is fading fast. As the only child, he is thrust into taking care of his father's last days and, in the process, come to terms with and ​accept his father and himself.
This is my SCR debut.
My other credits include Queen Latina & the Power Posse vs. the Evils of Society; Race, Religion & Politics; Dreaming in Tongues; A Winter Party; The Fairy Tale Project; The Oldest Boy; “Oz,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Jessica Jones,” “Bull” and “Gotham.”
Aubergine resonates with me because there are so many parallels that I can draw from my own life and relationship with my father. If you replace Ray being a chef, with my ongoing journey as an actor, Aubergine is easily my story, particularly as a Korean-American.
This is a beautiful play! It's a uniquely Korean-American experience yet, at the same time, it’s universal to every culture, which to me is the hallmark of a great play. You get tidbits of insight into the Korean-American experience at the same time the story resonates with everyone, especially with the connection of food to your senses, your feelings and memories.
I friggin’ LOVE working with [director] Lisa Peterson! She has such a gentle way of working with the actors. Even the way she gives suggestions makes you feel like you came up with it. And we have a fantastic cast.
My favorite childhood memory was a rare occasion when our whole family went on an outing. My dad took us to a drive-in theatre to see Star Wars. I'm not sure if I would have seen it on my own at that point in my life. Because it was a drive-in, I remember on the screen next to us was playing soft porn. Yes, you heard me My dad covered the side window with his jacket. But I had no interest in that movie at that time (okay, maybe a little); it was all about Star Wars!
A childhood memory tied to food was when I was very young—4 or 5 years old—and we were still living in Korea. My father didn't cook very often, but I remember him making a dish where he cut the top of an egg and cooked rice inside the shell over a wood stove. It was so good that the memory stayed with me and into my childhood memory. I asked my dad about it fairly recently and he has no recollection of it.
I just love food…periodt! But, if I had to choose, I might have to say Japanese. And if I had to be really specific: good sushi.


Jully Lee
I portray
Cornelia. She’s Ray's ex-girlfriend who gets roped in to becoming his interpreter, serving as a bridge to his Korean roots as he learns more about his father and his family history in Korea. She is practical and unsentimental, but rediscovers the joy from her youth through Ray and his special gift with food.
My previous SCR credit is tokyo fish story.
My other credits include Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, Joy Luck Club, Ladies, Colony Collapse, The Enchanted Nightingale, Sun Sisters, “The Kicks,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “The Kominsky Method.”
I love playwright Julia Cho’s writing, her words. She has such a masterful way of expressing the purest of moments with the simplest of words. She can also describe an experience in exquisitely beautiful detail. The way Ray has a gift with finding the right food for the right person—for me, that is Julia with her words. She is able to encapsulate the memory, the moment, and I am gently transported. She evokes all my senses with just her words. I am simply in awe of how her phrases carry me into my childhood, or into someone else's childhood. So vividly. It is truly astounding.
My biggest challenge is to execute the performance that I have crafted without being overcome by the emotions that well up throughout the course of the play. As an actor, you want to be present and give an honest performance, but you also need to tell the story. Ironically, I find these two at odds during many moments of the play.
I absolutely love playing Korean and American characters—I am so rarely given the opportunity. It's delightful to be able to inject my own personal history into the nuances of Cornelia, and also being able to play with other characters who I've grown up with like the character of Uncle, played by the incomparable Bruce Baek. Being able to see the world through Ray and Cornelia's eyes is so special for me. It's one of those rare times you get to see your life experience reflected back at you. It is a beautiful thing, and in these moments I feel that I am able to fully comprehend #RepresentationMatters.
My favorite memory of my parents was something of a game. We were close and had a great relationship (with the exception of ages 14-17—my fault!). After graduating from college, I moved back home for a couple of years and we would have these deeply philosophical conversations at the dinner table. Our conversations are always almost entirely in Korean. I can speak Korean comfortably, but my vocabulary is that of a 5 year old. So, as we would talk in Korean, I would always get stumped on a specific word I wanted to use. I would say the word I wanted to say in English and then describe the word in Korean, using all the tools of communication (simple Korean words, simple English words, facial expressions, emotions, hand gestures), and they would throw out guesses of what that word might be in Korean. This went both ways when I didn't understand a Korean word they used: they would tag-team and try to describe the meaning and I would guess the English translation. And then we would reach for the Korean-English dictionary that we kept at our dinner table and look up the English word and see if the translation matched their guesses. It was like a word game and my mom was way better at this game than my dad. This is my absolute favorite memory of my parents. We turned our communication challenges into a game and it was the most gratifying and fun.
My favorite food from childhood comes from the fact that I grew up two blocks away from a woman who had a blackberry tree right on the corner of Pontiac and Dunsmore. When the berries were in season, I would go with my dad every weekend, with these Korean plastic colanders in tow, and he would knock on her door and they would exchange a greeting and then we would get down to business. My dad would pick the ones that grew above my head and I would pick the ones that grew below his hip. It was quite an efficient system. We would bring home our bounty, eating most of the stash as we walked the two minutes back home. We moved to another town during junior high school and blackberries were never the same. I would eagerly order them, buy them, but they were always different. Too seedy, hard and not as sweet. It was always so disappointing. And frustrating. When I first read Aubergine, I was shaking. I'd heard of mulberries, but I never really knew what they were or what they looked like. After reading Cornelia's monologue, I Googled "mulberry" and sat and stared in silence. So my neighbor actually owned a mulberry tree. Not only was this realization personally mind-blowing, it made me think about all the times my parents would use a word that is similar or close to the actual word they mean in their broken English. Of course, I would do the same in broken Korean (and their English is far superior to my Korean). It evoked very much. On a deep, deep personal level.
My favorite food today is yellowtail sushi. As sashimi, nigiri, handroll, cut roll, poke bowl—it doesn't matter—I love the mix of fresh and creamy. It absolutely pleases my palate. Of course, accompanied with soy sauce with wasabi and a side of ginger.


Irungu Mutu
I portray Lucien Mukwege
, a smart, compassionate and hard-working immigrant from Eastern Africa. He works as a hospice nurse and loves his job; he also loves to garden as a hobby. I fell in love with his gentle strength, patience and spiritual insight. Lucien came from a big family, however lost most of them in the Second Congo War, which led him to leave for the U.S. He speaks Lingala, Kiswahili and French fluently. He is married and loves Afro-pop tunes.
This is my SCR debut.
My other credits include The Language Archive (also by Julia Cho!), Macbeth, Ruined, Henry V, A Raisin in the Sun, Peter and the Starcatcher, Mlima’s Tale, Bikeman, Bronks Ekspres, Our Lady of Kibeho, “Instinct,” “Preacher,” “Elementary” and “The Blacklist.”
Aubergine resonates with me for a couple of reasons: I have a father, in his early 80s, and this past January he was in the hospital after a nasty fall. My mom was a nurse for almost 20 years and that really inspires me.
What’s most challenging for me is trying to get the character of Ray to trust the process of his father’s death and his (Ray’s) part in it. Oh, and for me as an actor—dealing with all the medical equipment was tricky at first.
I love getting to talk about food—Lucien’s history with it and sharing food with people. I also love working in a team. The cast and creative team on this production are freaking stellar!
My strongest memory from childhood is seeing my parents dancing together in 1989 during Christmas vacation at a tropical beach hotel. I haven’t seen them dance spontaneously since then.
As a kid, my favorite meal was on Sundays. My mom cooked a roast chicken (we had a chicken coop), whole, peeled potatoes, gravy and some mukimo (a Kenyan vegetable dish).
My favorite food today is freshly caught octopus, grilled! Just one simple rub of spices or marinate, or no rub at all.


Luzma Ortiz
I portray the
Hospital Worker. I am there to guide Ray toward taking his father home for hospice care. I have the pressure of getting this patient to move forward in order to make room for an incoming patient, while at the same time taking care to ensure Ray feels heard and assured that he’s doing the right thing.
My previous SCR credits include American Mariachi and in the Theatre for Young Audiences show, Nate the Great.
My other credits include Hairspray, In the Heights, Dora the Explorer Live! (national tour), Passion, Man of La Mancha, Evita, Ragtime, West Side Story and Noises Off.
resonates with me deeply because earlier this year, I experienced having a loved one in hospice care.
I find it compelling that Aubergine conveys exactly what I experienced when my loved one was in hospice care. It is honest, truthful, relatable, touching and beautiful all at the same time.
But it’s challenging to work on this play because it’s almost like reliving what I experienced earlier with my own loved one. That’s balanced by getting to work with this incredible cast and team.
My favorite childhood memory of my parents is when they took me to see Fiddler on the Roof for my 11th birthday. It was a dinner theatre production and they told the manager that it was my birthday. So the manager took my program backstage and the entire cast signed the program for me. During the show, the matchmaker character spoke of a match she had arranged—and the actress playing that role replaced the name she says with my name! It was magical and I never forgot it. Best birthday ever, best present ever!
My favorite food as a kid was probably pancakes. And today, yep, probably pancakes.


Sab Shimono
I portray
Ray’s father.
My other SCR credits include tokyo fish story and The Ballad of Yachiyo.
My other credits include Mame, Pacific Overtures, Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen and Ride the Wind (all on Broadway, in the world premieres); The Wash, After the War, The Wind, Aubergine, “Longmire,” “The Blacklist,” “Mad Men,” “M*A*S*H,” “X-Files,” “Two and a Half Men,” Presumed Innocent, Come See the Paradise, The Shadow and Old Dogs.
I love this play because it is mesmerizing and different. There’s not much dialogue for me, but I love Julia Cho’s writing. I’ve done so many plays, but when something like this comes along, I’m drawn to it because it has such depth and simplicity.

Learn more about Aubergine ​and purchase tickets.