Aubergine: an eggplant by any other name
I was drawn to this play because of Julia Cho’s reputation for being a lover of language, as am I, and as are most of my favorite playwrights and authors, for that matter. I know it is possible to write well without being a logophile, but I personally find a deeper connection to an artistic experience when its creator shares my passion for the very words themselves that are used to tell our stories. Aubergine did not disappoint.
From the first utterance of the play — Diane’s opening monologue, played by Jessica Love — I was swept into a world where food is love, and every character has an exquisite abundance of sensory memory to share with the audience. Love’s delivery of this opening monologue, centered around the perfect pastrami sandwich her father made for her the night before he went in for cancer-related surgery, was a story she had told before. Not as an actor, bored with repeating these same lines, but as a person who cherishes this memory and is relishing the opportunity to let you, the audience, into it.
I cannot give enough credit to Cho and all those who helped her develop this play (especially Hansol Jung, her translator) for including Korean dialogue in this production, and deliberately using the subtitles to draw the audience into the content of what was being said, or leave them in the limbo of its auditory effect. It is delightfully novel, in contemporary American theater, not to understand the language that is being spoken on stage. Of course, Korean-speaking audience members had the privilege of bilingual understanding, but as someone who doesn’t understand a word of Korean, I loved being relegated to a more primal form of human communication, using tone and gestures and eye contact to interpret meaning instead of syntax. Cho’s respect for language is reflected in her choice to include Korean dialogue in Aubergine, and the play is all the richer for it.
The staging of Aubergine was a textbook example of form mirroring content, and I loved the way the interlocking circles of the set, resembling a bamboo steamer, framed the action through inclusion and exclusion, as the halves of the circle opened and closed. Similarly, each character in this play was wound tightly within the circle of themselves, and only opened up to the other people in their life as they recognized the necessity of vulnerability. Our protagonist Ray (Tim Kang) was the most essential example of this cracking open and closed, slowly learning to accept help and love from his ex-girlfriend, Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim), his father’s hospice nurse, Lucien, (Michael Potts), his Korean uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), and even, finally, his father (Stephen Park).
Ray was riddled with insecurities — about his relationships, his vocation, his language and his identity — and I was grateful to see a play that allowed its male characters to show their emotions. Whether it was Ray welling up or Lucien being awestruck at the taste of his long lost aubergines, this was yet another layer of the bamboo walls peeling open, allowing the audience into the characters’ hearts, and allowing the characters to embrace their own vulnerability.
Aubergine is a tender story of food and family, and the ways we express our love. This is the third play I have seen this year (following A. Rey Pamatmat’s House Rules and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ War) about Gen X kids taking care of their ailing Baby Boomer parents in the hospital, dealing not only with generational divides, but also the immense sacrifices their parents made for their well-being, either through immigration, single parenting, or just plain old grueling work.
There seems to be a cloud of guilt hanging over this generation, stemming from feeling spoiled and incapable of living up to the moral character of their parents. As Diane says, “I come home to find my dad cleaning out the garage [on the eve of his cancer-related surgery]. That’s the kind of guy my dad is. He’s part of that generation, you know the one. They’re frugal, they’re hardworking. They’re better people, basically, than us.” Kim’s character comes to a similar revelation, concluding a story about how her father always used to serve her the best part of the fish, taking the head and tail for himself with, “I think that pretty much sums up the dynamic between our generation and yours.”
In the program note, Cho hints towards a similar generation gap between herself and her parents, and some of anecdotes of the play seem to have been drawn directly from personal experience (a father’s penchant for a late night bowl of Ichiban ramen, for example). Rather than any personal feelings of guilt, however, we interpret a deep love and respect from Cho towards those Baby Boomer parents, which buoys the script with the fundament of family. Even if these Gen X children cannot repay their parents’ sacrifices in a direct or obvious way, they can return the love and nourishment that was at their root.
There was a fair amount of emphasis in the program notes on how this story falls into the category of “tragedy,” the Aristotelian kind in which fear plus pity equal catharsis. I appreciated that the play did not end with the father’s death, however, and let us glimpse the characters’ lives continuing past this customary conclusion. It was interesting to observe how my theater-trained brain kept waiting for the ending after the father’s death, until I told it to hush and lost myself in the rhythm of the rest of the action.
Listening to Ray deliver a eulogy for his father, the purpose of that ritual became clear to me in a way it never has before, in the real life funerals I’ve attended or the fictional ones I’ve seen depicted on film. Back to the Greeks, “eulogies” are “words of praise.” It is our survival mechanism, our way of drawing a lesson from the catharsis we have experienced. It frames our history and allows us to move forward. Since the battles with the dead will have been lost or won or never resolved by the time they are gone, it is self-induced closure.
And then, before you know it, Diane was back on stage, visiting Ray and Cornelia’s new restaurant where he magically serves his customers exactly what they are looking for. Like a sushi chef’s special omakase menu, but this chef has an in with the gods. I found the character of Diane, with her bookend scenes, to be a little extraneous, given how full of stories from Ray’s family I already was. However, I did appreciate how she brought an outsider’s perspective into this intimate story, demonstrating how there is a whole world of food memory just waiting to be tapped into.