I can't remember the last time I saw a play about Asian characters that left me feeling an emotion other than anger or frustration. That's probably because it rarely happens. No matter how renowned the playwright, successful the director or talented the cast, productions often miss the mark when representing Asians accurately on stage and usually in very big, offensive ways.
But every now and then, I am pleasantly surprised when a non-Asian theater company and director produce work about members of the Asian American community in a positive way. Aubergine at Everyman Theatre is exactly the unexpected, yet very welcomed pleasant surprise that I needed. It is honestly one the best productions centered on Asian or Asian American characters that I have ever seen produced in the Maryland and DC areas.
Aubergine, which is a collaboration between Everyman and Olney Theatres, is a unique experience in that it tells the story, not of a Korean family living in America, but of an American family that just happens to be Korean. It's not often that you see characters of Asian descent on stage who are dressed in "regular" street clothes rather than stereotypical Asian costumes. In this play, you won't see any kimonos, head dresses, exaggerated make-up or hear the twanging of a Chinese erhu. The absence of all things stereotypically Asian is refreshing and adds to the sincerity of this play.
Aubergine focuses on Ray - a talented and hot-tempered, foul-mouthed Korean American chef who is on the verge of losing his very sick and dying father. He has an innate gift of intuitively recreating childhood dishes which hold the most sentimental value to his clients, friends and acquaintances without being given any context beforehand. It's ironic then that Ray - who is brilliantly played by Tony Nam - is completely incapable of knowing how to create the only dish that brought his stoic, Korean father to tears as a young man. His incapacity to do so symbolizes just how disconnected he has become from his family as well as his Korean heritage.
Aubergine cleverly uses the themes of language and food throughout the story to connect perfect strangers, but also force wedges between family members. Playwright Julia Cho intelligently uses the current hashtag-foodtrend culture to show how food can be both communal and divisive all at once. Cho effortlessly depicts this when Ray's uncle tells the story of Halmoni's soup.
In this Act I scene, Uncle recalls Halmoni's (Ray's grandmother) amazing soup which is so good that Ray's father no longer wants to leave home for America. Realizing that her son is now torn, Halmoni "let's him go" and encourages him to follow through with his ambition to immigrate to the United States. It's a beautiful story of love and loss that is completely missed by Ray, who can no longer understand Korean. The only American character who can in this play is Cornelia, Ray's witty and sarcastic ex-girlfriend who is brought to life by the lovely Eunice Bae. Cornelia hears Uncle's story and is moved by it in a way that Ray cannot be. This further demonstrates that Ray's superhuman, culinary talent is useless when it comes to family matters. Not only has Ray lost the ability to linguistically communicate with his uncle and father, he has also lost his capacity to identify with them culturally and intuitively understand their experiences as he can with complete strangers.
A story so eloquently written needs equally eloquent and talented actors who can tell it. Everyman's cast of Aubergine hits every single note of this piece exactly as it should be struck. Tony Nam is everything you imagine Ray would be in real life. He is tall, attractive, charming and sincere. There isn't a single line he delivers that is wasted on stage. Even as he bitterly recalls moments of his failed relationship with his father, Nam conveys a sadness rooted in the fact that he never understood who his father was until after he lay dying.
Glenn Kubota as Ray's father spends a majority of his time quietly resting. However, in scenes when he must come alive, he is present and forceful. He is the dad who scolds his son for spending too much money on seemingly frivolous items; he is the father who is stuck in his old ways and pushes his only child away in order to protect him from his own pain. He is the father who does not wish to be a burden, yet somehow manages to cause the most anguish in his son's life.
Song Kim as Uncle gives perhaps the most beautiful and heartbreaking performance in the play. As the strange man from a foreign land who unexpectedly pays his nephew and dying brother a visit, Uncle represents all of the secrets Ray's father kept from him and offers one last chance for Ray to truly know his father. Song Kim's Uncle is playful and light-hearted, a stark contrast to Kubota's serious Father. Kim communicates through a variety of nonverbal ways his love for a family that left him behind and manages to include moments of humor in his interactions with Ray and Cornelia, even as he watches his brother die. Despite the fact that every word he speaks is in Korean, he captivates his audience nonetheless, Korean speaking and otherwise, with every word and every movement he gives.
Eunice Bae as the sharp-tongued Cornelia is Ray's perfect match in both wit and attitude. Though kind, she is not in any way, shape or form the Western ideal of a meek and submissive Asian woman. Cornelia is strong-willed and unapologetically calls Ray out on his rude and, albeit, dickish behavior; yet she is still humble enough to admit her shortcomings as a person. As the only American character who can speak Korean, Cornelia also becomes an unintentional bridge between the old world of her and Ray's families - South Korea - and the new world they have created in the States.
Rounding out the cast are Jefferson A. Russell as the compassionate hospice worker, Lucien, and Megan Anderson who plays dual roles. Anderson first greets the audience as Diane - the adventurous, traveling foodie who talks about the last dish her father ever made for her. It's an endearing, opening monologue which ultimately sets the tone for the entire play. Immediately after, we see her as the detached hospital worker who insensitively requests for Ray to sign a series of paperwork without fully explaining to him the seriousness of his father's condition.
Jefferson A. Russell fills the stage with a quiet strength and gentle energy as Lucien, portraying him as if he is an old friend of the family though he and Ray have only met just hours before. He is the sort of person one would hope is sent to care for a loved one who is in pain and ready to pass. Having been around death for so long, it is Lucien who helps Ray to accept the eventual loss of his father and find peace amidst the suffering.
The set for Aubergine is as intelligent and inventive in design as the story itself. The kitchen and dining areas of Father's house transform seamlessly into a hospital waiting area, cafeteria and restaurant. A sliding wall hides a hospital room and serves as a backdrop for projections which are shown throughout the play. If I had to nitpick (and I will), I would have wished the kitchen to represent more the Korean-American family to which it belonged. Though very modern and beautiful in its design, it was hard for me to believe that this kitchen was one most often used by an elderly, Korean widower. There were no traces of ramen, the supposed preferred dish of Ray's father, nor were there any classic East Asian kitchenware; no woks, no chopsticks, no plastic soup bowls or spoons. One should be more cognizant of allowing the set design to reflect the story which it helps to tell and, though I understand the desire to keep elements of the set neutral, it is possible to design a bit too neutrally.
Overall, Aubergine was a beautiful and heartwarming production. It left me feeling reflective of my own relationship with my immigrant parents, contemplating my own mortality and the life I choose to live leading up to that inevitable moment. As I walked out of the theater, I remember doing my best to quickly hide my swollen eyes and tear-stained face before looking around and realizing that nearly everyone in the theater was doing the same. I walked to the bathroom after curtain call and turned to the patron next to me who was also dabbing her eyes.
"You, too?" I teased. We both laughed and immediately began talking about how much we loved the play.
This is what good theater does. It highlights shared experiences rather than differences and creates ways for a diverse group of people to relate to each other. I wish more companies produced work like this.
I hope the rest of the theater community, particularly in Baltimore, is paying attention to Aubergine. If not, it should be because this is exactly how positive representation of minority American identities in theater should look like. This is the play that Asian Americans hope to see when you produce plays in your season that feature our communities and cultures. What Everyman and Olney finally seemed to grasp with this collaboration is the fact that a story about "The Other" can be a story about all of us. Aubergine wasn't a production that was trying too hard to be ground-breaking and that is why it's unique. Everything about this production came from a place of sincerity.
We need more plays like Aubergine in Baltimore. It's time that we began producing work that truly empowers minority communities, not because we are trying to stay relevant or seem cutting edge; we should be producing this work because we genuinely want to empower those communities and the individuals within them. We should produce this work because we actually care. When we work together to represent communities as they should be represented on stage and media, the result will be more experiences like Aubergine.
We need these experiences, especially now more than ever, and we need them to be genuine. I sincerely hope this is the beginning of something good in Baltimore theater because, right now, we all could use something that is actually good. Right now, I think we are all looking for more good things that bring us together.
Aubergine by Julia Cho at Everyman runs until April 15, 2018.
Directed by Vincent M. Lancisi.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 5 minutes with one intermission.
For more information and to order tickets, visit the Everyman Theatre website.