Food is Family in “AUBERGINE” at the San Diego Repertory Theatreby Pat Launer January 2, 2019
Surprisingly, a play about a Korean family starts off with a pastrami sandwich.
No surprise to San Diego Rep associate artistic director Todd Salovey. “Aubergine,” with its focus on food and family, resonates strongly with Jewish culture.
The play had a unique inception. Several years ago, acclaimed Korean-American playwright Julia Cho, winner of the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, among many others, was asked, by a group of writers, to create a one-act play about food.
She wrote a monologue about a woman whose late father made an absolutely perfect pastrami sandwich as a late-night snack. Now, whenever she inhales that pastrami smell, it brings back memories of her father. Kind of like Proust and his madeleines.
What she really longs for is to be back in 1982, “[when] I am eight years old and my father is young, and he, just like me, is never going to die.”
“Julia Cho thought, ‘No one will produce this,’” says Todd, who’s directing her 2017 play at the San Diego Rep (Jan. 24-Feb. 17).
“Then, she began to write a story about another food-lover,” he continues, “a Korean-American, Ray, an amazing chef, who’s taking care of his dying father. Though his father thinks eating is just a necessary chore, and cooking is an undesirable occupation, Ray has this special gift; he can intuit exactly what a person’s heart and soul needs to eat to re-connect them to the people and places that are most meaningful and beautiful in their history.”
Cho brought those two creations together in “Aubergine” (which is another name for eggplant – and also describes a color). Diane, the pastrami-seeker, only appears briefly in order to deliver her monologue at the beginning. She doesn’t return until the very end of the play.
“It’s a Korean play with Jewish ideas,” says Todd. “It asks how the food we eat carries on our culture and connects us to the people, places and events of our lives.”
When Ray’s father, dreaming of America, was leaving Korea after the war, his wife, a wonderful cook, decided to make him the perfect meal, in the hope that it would convince her husband not to leave his family.
Now, in America, as that father nears his end, Ray calls his father’s brother to the bedside. The uncle says Ray should create a soup that would make his father want to stay, and not leave the world.
“It feels like a really Jewish play to me,” Todd asserts. “When I was in college at Stanford, I used to visit my grandmother in Florida whenever I could. I kept a log of every meal she cooked for me. I have photos in my album of the meals she served. When I was a kid, she would always send us sugar cookies in the shape of stars. In the mid-‘80s, when I was in my mid-20s, she sent my last batch of sugar cookies. I said, ‘I can’t eat this.’ I put it in my mother-in-law’s garage. When she moved, 23 years later, she sent me the package.
“I opened the box with total trepidation. Every cookie was whole and intact. Now I keep the cookies in my closet.”
What’s Your Pastrami?
“There’s so much more to Judaism than food,” Todd asserts. “This play kind of makes you think: ‘What’s your pastrami sandwich?’ It’s different foods for different people. For my father’s mother, it was breast of veal and also eggplant. For my other grandmother, it was stuffed cabbage.”
Cho has written that “when someone dies, one of the harder aspects is that you no longer get to eat with them.”
“That sense of melancholy,” Marilyn Stasio wrote about “Aubergine” in Variety, “is beautifully evoked in a sequence of scenes in which parents and children bond — or clash — over meals, a dramatic confirmation that food is, indeed, the fundamental symbol of familial love.”
It’s not just food that links the Korean and Jewish cultures, though. There’s a strong through-line about fathers and sons, which was a running theme in the plays of Arthur Miller and the novels of Philip Roth (not to mention the living rooms of innumerable Jewish households).
“There’s a speech in the play,” says Todd, “about Korean families, and how the children are treated in a very loving way, but there are a lot of expectations. In the same way, Jewish kids are the future to their parents. Their hopes are pinned on their offspring, but at the same time, there are a ton of expectations.
“Ray is first generation American. He got no respect from his father for wanting to be a chef. When I was growing up, my grandparents said, ‘You can be anything you want – as long as it’s a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.’ ‘Don’t be a trombenik,’ my Nana would say, which I think means ‘Don’t be a bum!’”
Another focus of the play, says Todd, is language. As Charles Isherwood of the New York Times noted, “’Aubergine’ shares with [Cho’s] earlier work, like ‘The Language Archive’ and ‘The Piano Teacher, a perceptive sense of the invisible barriers that mysteriously spring up between people, and the equally mysterious impulses that bind them together. It has a clear-eyed focus on the sometimes ugly details of impending mortality.”
Similarly, Todd remarks, “The language in this play is really beautiful. The imagery is very mysterious. And despite the seeming simplicity of the story, it’s very profound. All Julia Cho’s plays have to do with identity, family, culture and nationality – and the fact that often, the mother tongue is lost.”
As she herself has written, “You can lose an entire language so easily, but I most likely will eat what my grandmother ate, with as much relish as she did. And my children will eat what my grandparents ate.”
Todd sees the commonalities with Yiddish, a language that is lost, and sometimes, in later generations, found again. And in the Mexican-Jewish community, he notes, “Spanish is very important. But what happens when the younger kids don’t speak Spanish?”
When Ray phones his uncle in Korea, he needs to call his ex-girlfriend to come and translate. “Another really poignant thing in the play,” says Todd.
“After his father dies, Ray still thinks of him as grouchy, unhappy and not very personable. But then he gets a call from his father’s dentist, who says what a nice, pleasant man he was and how much he’ll be missed.
“As a kid, you really don’t know how your parents interact in the world – especially if they’re disappointed in you, and your relationship with them is difficult. The play is a profound meditation on how, in the context of loss, we can find acceptance, and find what’s most meaningful in our lives.
“Food can both unite and divide families,” says Todd. “In Ray’s family, his father didn’t like any fancy food, and had no appreciation of Ray’s gourmet skills. Food has always been a separating point between them. The woman at the outset, Diane, is craving the pastrami sandwich to take her back to when her family was together and everything was whole. Ray thinks of the last time his mother cooked a special meal for his father, and he’s trying to do the same, to re-connect the circle.”
Tellingly, instead of some gourmet extravaganza, what Ray cooks is mugook, the simplest, most basic soup prepared in Korean kitchens. Ray’s girlfriend, Cornelia, admits that she fell in love with him when, without any clues or suggestion, he served her a bowl of fresh mulberries, like the ones her father had picked for her as a child.
“There’s one other character in the play,” Todd says, “the nurse who takes care of Ray’s father. He’s a refugee from North Africa; he tells about the food experiences of his family in a refugee camp. The food there was so different from what the people who had another life before that could remember.”
It’s this hospice care worker, Lucien, who gives the play its name. He grew a beautiful aubergine in a community garden. “The best thing I ever ate was the first thing I ever planted,” he says. “And when I ate it, I tasted something that almost reminded me of home.”
When Ray makes him a personalized dish of food, the gentle Lucien says, “When I eat this, I am young,”
So, food is tied in with family and memory, life and death, love and loss, grief and growth.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
Fraternal conflict and camaraderie is another theme in the play. Ray’s father and uncle were very different when they were growing up in Korea. They didn’t get along well, and as adults, they were out of touch for many years. But as soon as he gets the phone call, Ray’s uncle takes the next plane to the U.S. (though it’s not specifically stated, Todd feels that the play is set in southern California).
Every character has a private monologue they share with the audience. A few have a magical or mystical element. These direct-address speeches share food-related memories that connect the speaker to their childhoods and their parents.
In the San Diego Rep production, all the leading roles are played by Korean actors, two of whom are fully fluent in Korean.
“I cast from all over the country,” Todd says.
There are only two local actors: Amanda Sitton (whom he first directed in 1993) and DeLeon Dallas (recently spotlighted at the Rep in “Actually,” and at The Old Globe in “Clint Black’s Looking for Christmas”).
Oh, and another link to Judaism: Todd says, “I’ve heard that a Korean version of the Talmud is a best-seller in Korea. Because of the moral instruction and intellectual tradition. In schools, they think of it as mind training.”
According to Todd, “Julia Cho has written that she didn’t realize how short the shelf-life of a play is. I think she’d be thrilled that someone from another culture would relate to her play. I think the Jewish audience will definitely relate to this play. It certainly captures my Jewish soul.”
“AUBERGINE” runs at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza, Jan 24-Feb. 17
Tickets and information: 619-544-1000; sdrep.org.