Aubergine: A Story of Love, Loss, and Lots of Food
by Alexander Mierjeski and Madison Darbyshire
Aubergine, a new play by Julia Cho opening at Playwrights Horizons, is at its center about family. The story of a son tasked with caring for his dying father in hospice is tied together by food and the simple question, “What is the best thing you ever ate?” As each of the six central characters gives their answer, the play links food to its central place in both family and memory.
From okra grown in the garden of a refugee, to a bowl of mulberries, to a simple bowl of soup made with such care that it brings the character to tears, the examples in play show ‘best’ has less to do with quality, and everything to do with love.
Two of Aubergine’s principles spoke over noodles, about the way the play harnesses the narrative power of a meal, as well as to explore the actors’ own complicated relationships with food.
The central character of the son, a Korean American chef, finds himself confronted by two family members whose attitudes towards food he cannot understand. His father, played by Stephen Park, who has never found joy in food, and his uncle, played by Joseph Yang who has flown in from Korea to see his dying brother and who brings with him old-world food traditions that the son initially finds exasperating.
Mr. Park’s strongest food memory is of burnt rice with soft Kimchi, a dish his mother served him as a child. Before rice-cookers, the rice at the bottom of the cooking pot would become crispy and burn. For Mr. Park’s mother, and many other Korean families, nothing could be wasted in the kitchen, and the kimchi rice was a traditional way to use up spoiled ingredients.
It was during an acting exercise that Mr. Yang came to his most powerful food memory: Kimchi Jjigae. When his acting teacher asked him to visualize the food that he most loved, he was surprised when he thought of the fragrant stew made with over-fermented kimchi. He says he realized then that the food that meant the most to him had so much to do with his Korean identity and ultimately, his family.
Mr. Yang says he spent the bulk of his childhood in Oklahoma trying to separate himself from his Korean identity. He says that the play’s emphasis on food and memory has wedged open the door to his Korean identity. He now plays a character who speaks in Korean throughout the play, a language he has not spoken since childhood. Given the rarity of parts for Asian actors in American theater, a role for a Korean speaker is unique, and holds special significance for Mr. Yang.
While food plays a philosophical role in the development of the play, it also plays a literal one on stage. The stage manager, Cole, took Alex and Madison backstage to show them how the crew creates the props that make the food come alive for the audience. One cast member gently fries a pastrami sandwich in butter, while another prepares ten-cent Top-Ramen, beef flavor, for a scene in Act Two.
The play has changed the way both actors interact with food in their daily life, heightening their consciousness of what different foods mean to them. Mr. Park says it has made him think more about ways in which food is an expression of love. The son spends the play reconciling his relationship with his father by trying to prepare him an acceptable final meal.
Food is also an expression of love in the lives of the actors. Mr. Yang’s wife is a cancer survivor, who now keeps a strict ketogenic diet. As a way of showing his commitment to their life together, the entire family observes the diet, and Mr. Yang usually brings his packed lunch and dinner to the theater. For Mr. Yang, the act of choosing a shared food path is a way of putting love first. He also says the new style of eating has also woken him up to a new food consciousness, putting health first and considering deeply the way his body reacts to diet.
The actors also keep specific pre-show food rituals. Mr. Park’s role in the play as the dying father means that he spends the bulk of the play lying prostrate with his mouth open, next tensed in discomfort. His theater food ritual is to take honey before the show, to clear his throat and prevent him from coughing.
Mr. Yang and Mr. Park agree that the key to a pre-show meal is to be satisfied but not full, to stay energized but not sluggish on set. Soup is the ideal meal, because it is substantial but not overfilling.
Both actors bonded over their love of a food that is a more recent addition to Korea’s food identity: Spam. A luxury item originally imported during the Korean War for American soldiers, Spam is now an essential ingredient in many Korean dishes, and Korea is now the second largest importer of the canned meet after the United States. Says Mr. Park, “Spam is to Korea as… Spam is to Minnesota.”
“Spam and eggs with rice,” says Mr. Yang, “Is the best.”