Aubergine's leading actress talks about food, casting minority actors and growing up Korean American.
"I need to discover more spots in Baltimore," Eunice's Facebook message reads. We're trying to pin down a place to meet for dinner.
"Any dietary restrictions?" I ask.
"None, though ironically I don't enjoy eggplant. Ha!"
I check out her Instagram page as we Facebook chat. “Finally using my Resting Bitch Face to pay the bills,” says the caption to her latest photo. I laugh out loud and hit 'like'. The post is a promotion for Aubergine, the current production at Everyman Theatre in which she plays the sarcastically witty character Cornelia (hence, the joke about eggplants). We finally decide on Dooby's, which seems fitting since it's a Korean fusion restaurant and we're meeting to talk about the Korean American play she's doing.
The day of, Eunice arrives to dinner right on time. This is usually when I write something contrived and seemingly flattering like “she breezed in through the door with a smile on her face”. But the thing about Eunice is that she’s not the kind of woman who “breezes” into any place. She enters the room with a very direct demeanor and confidence; no bullshit. She is also not the kind of woman with a smile plastered on her face wherever she goes. As her Instagram post indicates, more than likely she’s the woman you think is pissed off and looks damn good regardless.
“Hey!” she greets me as I initiate a half-assed hug. “This place was perfect. It's right down the street from the theater!” We settle on our food order and find a place to sit. Immediately, we’re talking about our propensities to frown, being Asian actors and how much we love Ali Wong.
“I always tell people, ‘If you need to understand me better, just watch Ali Wong!’” Eunice declares. The server brings us our order and we dive in without pause, continuing our casual conversation between big bites and loud slurps of food. Her energy is refreshing. Despite the straight face, she is warm, welcoming and surprisingly funny; it’s easy to talk to her. No, not easy. Fun. Eunice Bae is a fun person with whom to chill and eat massive amounts of Korean food.
I soon find out that Aubergine is Eunice's first straight play. Until recently, most of her experience on stage had been as a musical theater actress and we joke for a good bit about how it seems so out of character for her to be on stage singing and smiling for three hours straight. “In musical theater people are always like, ’SMILE!’ and I’m like, ‘I thought I was!’” she laughs. “But in this show, I’m supposed to be pissed off.”
“You were perfect in this show!” I assure her, mouth full of Japchae.
“That’s just my face. I’m not even trying!” She bites into a piece of Korean chicken. “It’s funny because when we started rehearsing, that was not how [the character] was first approached. And I think our director sort of sensed that [sarcasm] in me and he was like, ‘She can be meaner.’ And I was like, ‘Oh so me? I can be ME?’"
We chat about how hard it is as Asian actors to get cast in roles that don't require us to become complete caricatures or how rare it is to play characters that are actually our ethnicity. "Yeah, I never get to play a Korean character," she tells me. "I’ve played a Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, but I never get to play a Korean."
I've had the opposite experience; I've never played a Filipino.
Her co-star Tony Nam, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have the same problems that we do as a veteran theater actor. "He’s like, 'I always get cast as non-specific-race characters that are usually white and they just change it to Asian.' And I’m like 'Dude! That’s the dream!'” She laments.
It is the dream. As minority actors, we long for the opportunity to play characters that are authentic and represent our identities, but also hope to portray roles that don't use our ethnicities as some kind of gimmick. But it's a long journey to get to that point and in the meantime, we often find ourselves constantly portraying characters that we shouldn't be portraying at all.
"I was really excited when I did In The Heights." I stop eating when she says this. It seems odd for a Korean American actress to be cast in a show about Latinx Americans living in New York City. "There was one Filipino guy who played a break dancer, but in the ensemble I was the only [other] Asian. This was a dream show of mine but its a show that I never thought I would be cast in. And then I got cast as an understudy for Carla." I'm slightly cringing as Eunice acknowledges how incredibly questionable the casting choice was. "I was like 'How do we do this?' Because she specifically talks about her ethnicity in the song. She says 'My mom is Dominican Cuban. My dad is from Chile and P.R. which means I’m Chile-Dominica-Rican. But I always say I’m from Queens.' [I thought], 'I can’t say that. I can’t do that!'"
So Eunice did what any quick-witted, minority actor would do: she adjusted the lyrics. "I told my music director and he [said], 'That’s fine with me.' So I changed it to 'My mom is Dominican Cuban. My dad is from Chile and P.R. which means I’m Chile-Domini-Korean... but I always say I’m from Queens. I literally heard people behind me on stage go 'BAH!'" We are both cracking up. It was a bold move on her part, but truth be told she's not the only minority actor who's had to do some sly line switching last minute to justify a role she was playing. We've all had to do it.
She recalls another instance in which her black American friend was cast to play Marcy Park, the notably Korean American character in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. "As soon as she walked out of the stage door, she was like ‘Hi, don’t hate me, I love you!’ That was the first thing she said to me. And I was like ‘You did amazing in that role!" Still, deep down she kept asking, "But why? Not to her, she was amazing. It was the theater."
It occurs to me as she's speaking how often we actors of color find ourselves apologizing to one another for the frequent faux pas committed by directors and producers who are lacking in melanin and social awareness. It's so simple for them - just cast that non-white actor in that non-white role. For us, it becomes a Catch-22. Do we stick to our moral guns and turn it down? Or do we take the role and pay our rent? It's not always easy for us to do the former, especially when you have bills to pay and live in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.
We eventually circle back to Aubergine and admit how grateful we are that Everyman and Olney Theatres had the audacity to produce a play about an Asian immigrant family and the decency enough to cast it accurately. It's rare to see Asian American characters portrayed sincerely in any form of mainstream American entertainment, let alone in theater. We are the foreigners, the mystics, the trained fighters, the submissive servants; we are never just everyday American humans. It's what makes Aubergine a unique theatrical experience, especially for this area. There's no doubt when you watch it that the characters who need to be Korean are, indeed, Korean.
"You know it’s funny because when the playwright gave the rights to this play she [told them] 'Sure, you can have the rights, but it’s going to be impossible to produce.' You can't fake the Korean in this and there are not enough Korean American actors who speak Korean still.” Eunice goes on to explain that most Korean American actors are adopted and that individuals who are still connected to their Korean heritage more than likely don't pursue careers as actors. "If they are connected to their Korean roots, they ain’t gonna be disappointing their parents by going into theater!"
Then, Eunice lets me in on a little secret. "I actually don't speak Korean." She definitely fooled me.
"It was my first language, technically," she clarifies, "but I only spoke Korean until I was four. My older brother was really shy and my mom observed him in Kindergarten not able to speak to other kids. It killed her to watch her son struggle to communicate. So after him, with me and my younger brother, English was spoken in the house. There were three of us that spoke English, so that language sort of took over."
We begin swapping stories about growing up Asian in America. There are obvious differences between us. She is Korean and I am Filipino; she was born in the States and I immigrated as a child. Still, there are enough similarities in our childhoods that we can commiserate with one another. We talk of our parents' struggles as they did their best to raise children in a foreign country, our disconnect from our Asian roots and how our upbringings affected our relationships with our parents.
"Yeah, the expectations of parents," Eunice sighs. It's a hard topic to hit and hits nerves in both of us. She reflects on her experiences as the daughter of immigrants. "My white friends are always like 'Oh my gosh, I told my parents first thing' or 'I always tell them when I don't get a project.' I'm like, 'You do?' I don't tell my parents any of that stuff because I want to spare any disappointment I possibly can."
I can relate. I've observed the same relationships with my friends too, and not just those who are white. Most of my American friends are extremely close to their families, some even consider their parents to be their best friends. It's a relationship that I will never understand and it's clear that Eunice doesn't either. It's hard enough growing up in an immigrant household; sometimes it's just easier to withhold information, good or bad, to spare everyone any unexpected, unnecessary inconvenience that might come with it.
"Have you gone back to South Korea?" I ask her.
"I went back when I was twenty-two and when I was five. And that's it."
I tell her how it took me over twenty years to return to the Philippines after immigrating. "It's weird to go to a country where you literally look like everyone else…"
"...But not." She finishes my sentence for me.
"You just stick out."
"Yeah. Everybody could tell I was American."
At this point, we've moved on from noodles to coffee. The server brings us our much needed caffeine to avoid any possible food comas and I have my leftovers boxed. We sip our drinks and discuss why it was hard for either of us to find our "tribes" growing up. We try to place our fingers on the exact reasons why we never connected with our respective Korean or Filipino American social circles in college.
"I don't know. Maybe I was being..."
"It was like we were trying too hard."
"Exactly. I was like, 'but why?'"
"Right. Why are we trying? We already are."
I recognize every now and then throughout our conversation why it seems so easy for non-Asian, non-immigrant Americans to lump us into one category. There is a lot that sets us apart, it's true - countries of origin, religion, ethnicity, cultural practices. But there is also this mutual sense of unbelonging that none of us can shake. We're not American enough, not Asian enough and, for some of us, not immigrant enough. It leaves us with this constant feeling that no matter what we do, we just don't fit anywhere: not with any specific society, not as a character in a play, not even with our own families.
As I think about it, it makes sense that we found our eventual tribes in theater. It's art imitating life as we audition for role after role after role, trying to figure out which ones suit us best. We try all the parts - Korean, Filipino, Latinx, American, immigrant, mixed race, non-specific-race - with the hope of finding our place and realizing who we are. In the end, all we want is to be able to say "I can be me". No explanations required.
Our conversation winds down to an inevitable end. It's a two show day for Eunice and she has a friend coming to visit soon. The next time I check her Instagram, she's taking over Everyman's page. "Yubohsehyoh?" her update reads. The post right before it is a throwback photo of her and her brothers sporting the same bowl-shaped haircuts and making silly faces at the camera. I swear I have pictures that look almost exactly like it. I smile. I guess deep down, we Asian kids of immigrants really are all the same - and I guess it's not always a bad thing.
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.