Sab Shimono and Jinn S. Kim.
Julia Cho’s Aubergine centers on the relationship between Ray, a Korean-American man, and his father. Like so many father-son relationships, theirs is complicated and thorny. And perhaps the sharpest thorn stems from the fact that Ray is a chef, a profession that his father finds unworthy. As a corollary to that ongoing argument, they have a fundamental disagreement about food: Ray considers cooking an art form, while his father would rather eat a 10-cent package of ramen than the haute cuisine prepared by his son. Figuratively—and even somewhat literally—the two men don’t speak the same language.
Their disagreement has deteriorated into a kind of cold war as the play begins: for some time Ray has avoided his father’s company and their occasional phone calls have tended to be short and awkward.
But then Ray gets some news that changes the trajectory of their lives. His father is dying. Ray moves back into the family home, where his father will spend his remaining days in hospice care. A nurse named Lucien comes every day to help out, but otherwise the two men have only each other for company. That’s because they don’t really have any other family … except for the dying man’s brother, who still lives in Korea.
When Ray belatedly remembers his uncle, he reluctantly decides he must let the man know about the impending death of his only brother. But Ray speaks no Korean and his uncle speaks no English, so Ray must enlist the help of his former girlfriend, Cornelia, who is fluent in Korean but who hasn’t forgiven Ray for the abrupt way he ended their relationship – without an explanation or even a good-bye.
That’s the set-up for the play’s story, which flows like the current of a slow river, headed towards its only possible outcome … and yet there are surprises in store, because while his father’s death may be inevitable, the way Ray and the others get there, and what they discover when it arrives, can’t really be anticipated.
There are a few other characters: a woman named Diane who talks to us at the beginning of the play and then doesn’t return until its conclusion (that’s one of the surprises); a hospital worker who helps Ray navigate the medical bureaucracy; and a turtle (another surprise). Ray’s mother also figures importantly in the story, although she never appears, having died long before the play begins.
As for the play’s title, aubergine is the word commonly used in France and the U.K. for what Americans call an eggplant. The word is also used for the dark purple color of most eggplant found in the U.S. (they also come in white, red, green and other hues). That deep, nearly black shade of purple conveys a certain sepulchral foreboding, but it’s also lustrous and vibrant with vegetal life. The fruit of the eggplant (it’s actually a berry, not a vegetable) doesn’t have much nutritional value, but it absorbs oils and flavors into its flesh and is used in cooking the world over.
Almost every character in Aubergine talks to us about food at some point during the play. They talk about their favorite foods and the memories associated with them. They talk about the emotional flavors absorbed by those remembered foods. Food becomes its own language in the play, a language that transcends the limitations of the spoken word. It conveys history, culture, family, tradition … and sometimes love.
For a play that culminates in a death, Aubergine manages to be uplifting and life-affirming. Among the unexpected flavors it offers are abundant humor and a little bit of magic. You’ll probably walk away feeling both content and hungry.
In describing the structure of Aubergine, Julia Cho suggests the play takes the form of a series of concentric circles, stories nested within each other. There’s another circular story that reaches completion with SCR’s production of the play.
Cho wrote Aubergine for Berkeley Repertory Theatre at the same time that she wrote Office Hour for SCR. The two plays had their premiere productions at the originating theatres within a month of each other in Spring 2016. Two years later, Berkeley offered its own production of Office Hour, staged by the company’s associate director, Lisa Peterson—who now directs Aubergine here at SCR. (Another little circle nested inside that one: Berkeley’s original production of Aubergine was directed by its then-artistic director, Tony Taccone, who will make his SCR debut later this season when he helms the world premiere of I Get Restless, the final production of the Argyros season.)
Peterson, who recently left her staff position at Berkeley Rep, directed SCR’s production of Culture Clash (Still) in America last season and will direct that show again at Berkeley this season. She also directed the original production of Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories at SCR in 1996. For Aubergine she has assembled a stellar design team that includes Myung Hee Cho (sets and costumes), Ruoxuan Li (associate costume designer), Yee Eun Nam (projection design), John Gromada (composer/sound designer) and Peter Maradudin (who estimates this is his 50th lighting design for SCR).
The cast includes Jinn S. Kim, making his SCR debut in the role of Ray. Ray’s father is played by Sab Shimono (who made his SCR debut in 1996 in The Ballad of Yachiyo). Jully Lee plays Cornelia (returning to SCR after appearing in tokyo fish story in 2014). Bruce Baek as Ray’s Uncle, Irungu Mutu as Lucien and Joy DeMichelle as Diane are all appearing at SCR for the first time. Luzma Ortiz plays the Hospital Worker only weeks after her Segerstrom Stage debut in American Mariachi.
Learn more about the cast and creative team for Aubergine here.
A footnote: including cast members, designers, stage management staff and the playwright, SCR’s production of Aubergine features the work of seven Korean or Korean-American theatre professionals.