Playwright Julia Cho’s most recent work, Aubergine, is currently playing at Berkeley Reparatory Theatre (Berkeley Rep). The play chronicles the story of Ray, a first generation Korean American chef who shirks his social and work responsibilities to be at the bedside of his sick father in the last uncertain days of his life. As the story unfolds, a small makeshift group of friends and family come together to discuss strained family relationships, the meaning of loss, and the capacity food has to draw us together or tear us apart. The play elicits food memories across the lives of all the characters, however seemingly disparate their stories are, allowing the audience to also think about our own emotional and cultural associations with food. An early review from the San Francisco Chronicle has already praised Aubergine pointing out that the audience comes away “fully engrossed in the people, ideas and language of playwright Julia Cho…A combination of theatrical ingredients so fulfilling that a standing ovation is in order.”
Julia Cho’s previous plays have been produced at multiple theatres in New York, California and Connecticut. Her education and background include a master’s from UC Berkeley, an MFA from New York University, a residency at the Juilliard School and a membership with New Dramatists. Aubergine sprouted from the Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor: Center for the Creation and Development of New Work. Over the course of multiple years, Aubergine evolved from a draft of a short play in to a full-fledged production, helmed in Berkeley by director Tony Taccone. Luckily for audiences across California, Aubergine will be playing at Berkeley Rep through March 27, 2016 and Cho’s other new play, Office Hour, will premiere in April 2016 at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, CA featuring Sandra Oh in a lead role.
CAAM spoke with Cho and she shared her reflections on Aubergine as a finished play and on examining the role of Asian American identity in the writing process.
The play explores the intersecting topics of family, food, and death. What drew you to this conversation and what was the writing process was like?
I think there is definitely a push and pull when it comes to writing because there are the things we want to write about and there are things the play wants to be about; which are often very separate. That’s the way it’s felt for me with this play. What drew me to writing this play was talking about food. [Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor originally commissioned Cho along with 16 other playwrights to write short plays about food in 2012.] It’s one those great topics that is simultaneously very everyday and it can also be very profound because of the place it occupies in our lives. It’s a daily thing we have to do three times a day and it’s also the center of a lot of our relationships. As I got deeper in to it there were a lot of other things that I didn’t really intentionally set out to write and those are the topics that surprised me. It wasn’t my intention to write about loss or grief. In a weird way, I was just along for the ride. Parts of the play were written at different times, which is a little unusual. I wrote a little bit, took time not looking at it at all, then expanded it.
Had you thought about or conceptualized the connection between food and identity before working on this piece?
It’s not something I’ve written about before. I think that as soon as I started thinking about a play about food I knew it would be Korean food. In that sense it’s not so much that it was about my identity as a Korean American, [than it was] about food that resonates with me. I say Korean food, but even that’s not necessarily true. For instance, a lot of the play revolves around ramen, and the ramen in the play isn’t even technically Korean ramen. But what makes it have that cultural resonance is that it’s food I have a sort of nostalgia about. Something like ramen, event though it’s not technically Korean, becomes very much a part of my Korean American background growing up.
The connection between the father and son characters is so influenced by the father’s experience as an immigrant and the son’s experience as a 1st generation child. Can you tell me about writing on this topic and the significance of that narrative?
Again, I think it’s hard to articulate it as a causal or intentional thing. When I set out to write a play, I don’t necessarily think about what I am trying to say. The best I can do is create something that feels alive so that my characters feel alive. They do what they do and say what they say and I try to be as honest as possible in recording it. After it exists as a play then you can look at it and say which issues come out. I hope to record the realities that I know and present them as honestly as I can. I can say, “this is a father, this is the son, this is who they are, this is the nature of their relationship” and tell it with as much right as anybody else would tell their stories and because the characters I’ve made are immigrants or children of immigrants it becomes part of the larger story. That said, I think I am not as interested in identity plays. I think my earlier plays were probably more concerned about Korean American characters struggling to understand their place in America. It’s not that I have resolved any of those things but I think I am less concerned with that and more with the characters just doing what they do. I don’t think that any of us in a day-to-day way think about identity all the time! (laughs) I don’t think about my dad or mom as Koreans first. We think of them as our parents! As much as I can, I try to give my characters that same ease to just be who they are and not have everything always marked by identity.
I think that’s really interesting. Oftentimes we view art and writing expecting specific inspiration or intention but when we ask those questions it can pigeonhole people. Just because you’re Korean American doesn’t mean you have to write about “the Korean American experience.”
Exactly! I think there is empowerment in just telling a story without that feeling of having to explain or articulate how someone is. That’s part of the freedom of reading someone like [Haruki] Murakami who is writing in Japanese, for Japanese people, and we read the translation in English. But there is never any sense of him writing and having to explain what udon is or something! He is just writing within his context and we, as readers, need to catch up. I think it would be really great if Asian Americans could have access to the space of not having to explain or recognize difference. Just saying, “this is the world” and they will be who they are without any thought of explanation.
So, do you speak Korean?
I speak very little Korean. One of the funny things about this play is how it seems fairly self-explanatory but actually every stage was completely fraught with deeply existential questions of, “should this play even exist?!” (laughs) I came to a point in writing where I felt there is this Korean relative who shows up and I could not get around the fact that this Korean relative needs to speak Korean. If I am going to be honest that is what would happen! I struggled with whether I had the right to write Korean because I can’t speak it. I had to give myself permission to write all of his lines in English and marked all of them with an asterisk noting that it was being spoken in Korean. At that point I had no idea if or how it would ever actually become Korean. I also had no idea if anyone would ever read the play. What was really remarkable was the idea that if you just go on your path, the things you need will appear. Which sounds very new age-y and weird (laughs) but I do kind of think that’s true because at some point I knew I needed a translator and a few different ways pointed me toward this woman, Hansol Jung. She herself is a wonderful playwright who I feel is about to explode and happens to be one of those people who is fluent in both Korean and English. She did the translation for me and enabled the play to reach a level that I could have never gotten to on my own.
Many characters share important specific dishes or food memories. What is your most special food experience or memory?
Oh man! I don’t have a good answer to that and it’s surprising because I should! I think I just have a whole sense of my mother’s cooking that is something irreplaceable in my life. It’s not that it’s Korean, it’s the way she cooks it. And the older I get, the more conscious I am of how special it is every time I eat it. I have this special relish for it. I know there are a limited number of times in my life I will get to eat this food–I just don’t know the number. I know it is part of a finite number of experiences so I try to appreciate each one.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mika Hernandez is a queer mixed Asian American-Xicana born and living on occupied Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land (Oakland, CA). She is a writer, artist, and community organizer passionate about the intersections of reproductive, racial, and food justice work. You can follow her work at hernandezmika.wordpress.com.
By Julia Cho
Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Peet’s Theatre
February 5–March 27, 2016
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
CAAM Fam Discount:
Save 15-50% on Aubergine at Berkeley Rep – a bittersweet and moving meditation on family, forgiveness, and the things that nourish us. When language fails, when the past fades, the perfect meal transcends time and culture and says more than words ever can. As a friend of CAAM, you can save 15% (50% if you’re under 30!) on evening performances from March 10-11, 13, 17-18. Just use the code CAAM online (or click here) and save!