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Julie Cho’s Play Aubergine shows authenticity by bringing out themes of identity, love, loss and healing through food

Jinn S. Kim and Sab Shimono in South Coast Repertory’s 2019 ​production of ​Aubergine by ​Julia Cho. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR.

By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer

When you hear the term Aubergine the first thing that pops into your head would be an eggplant, because that is what it is. But what you would not be aware of is that this eggplant becomes the unifying agent which brings this awesome play together by playwright Julie Cho. The play is essentially about Korean American Ray ( played by Jinn S. Kim) and his desire for approval from his dying father (played by Sab Shimono). Ray tries to comprehend why his stoic father didn’t have a love for food unlike himself, a chef. Aubergine brings in a number of themes including the lack of cultural understanding and language on Ray’s part and his difficulties understanding his Korean uncle (played by Bruce Baek) who comes over to the US to see off his brother – Ray’s father. An eggplant, Ray’s ex-girlfriend, Cornerlia ( played by Jully Lee) and the home care nurse Lucien (played by Irungu Mutu) become the glue which allows Ray to reconnect with his Korean identity, his uncle and allows him to understand his father’s love.

Having watched the play at the South Coast Repertory, I can say without providing any spoilers that it is worth watching as it will heighten your emotions, particularly if you are Asian/Asian American and have struggled at times in understanding your first generation migrant parents and your relationship with them as their child. In saying that, I had the opportunity to interview the playwright for Aubergine, Julie Cho and my first question (which I am sure is everyone else’s first question) is why name the play after an eggplant.

Honestly, I don’t remember consciously choosing the name “Aubergine”, it was sort of the working title for a period of time and it just started to feel like the right word. What initially drew me to the name “Aubergine” was that it is a more “cooler” way of saying eggplant which shows that certain words and language is not always adequate to convey our feelings and what we mean. It also shows that the words we choose can impact on what happens in our lives.

Using food as the play’s focal point is all about the common language as everyone, no matter where you come from must eat – and that is essentially what Cho demonstrates in her play, that food and the process of cooking can build and mend relationships and allow people to come to terms with loss, misunderstandings and hardship.

Bruce Baek and Jinn S. Kim in South Coast Repertory’s 2019 ​production of ​Aubergine by ​Julia Cho. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR.

The decision to make food the focus wasn’t my choice in a sense that the play first began at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre when I was approached by the them about joining their food project. I was one of twenty playwrights who were approached to write about food, says Cho.

The play started as a short experiment but it ended up becoming something bigger. It naturally led into ideas on family, loss, love and relationships. It showed me that everyday small things like food can be as small as you want it or as large as you want it.

Cho is no newbie on the theatre scene and has been active in having her plays performed over the last fifteen years. In that time she has seen so many changes within the industry with more authentic stories being written and performed but also a larger pool of actors to tap into – particularly Asian American actors. Cho also tells me that she would like to see more Asian American playwrights rise up and that we need more David Henry Huang’s- a legend among theatre playwrights.

Jinn S. Kim and ​Jully Lee in South Coast Repertory’s 2019 ​production of ​Aubergine by ​Julia Cho. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR.

In my time as a playwright, I have seen significant changes to the industry. Take the casting process for Aubergine as an example. When I first started writing plays fifteen or so years ago, it was difficult to find and cast Korean American actors because the pool was so small. Casting for Aubergine opened my mind and allowed me to see that there is a sea change where it is not difficult to find awesome and talented Korean American actors to play the Korean American characters I wrote about.

But when you ask me whether there is more cultural representation in the writers, directors, producers etc in American theatre I am not really sure how to answer that. I definitely think David Henry Huang is a special person who is not only a great writer, but also a champion in mentoring the next generation of Asian American playwrights. He is really generous with his time and advice. Asides from him, I can’t think of any other Asian American writer who has achieved the pinnacle of his success.

I can’t speak for him, but for me I am still waiting for the numbers of Asian American playwrights who have cultural clout to grow. I know there have been Asian American playwrights from my cohort who have fallen away over time and in some sense I feel the numbers have remained the same in terms of diversity in playwrights. I would love to see more diversity on the types of Asian American directors and playwrights to include more stories and cultural clout from those of South East Asian American and South Asian American backgrounds etc.

If you are around the Orange County area or anywhere in Southern California, go check out Aubergine which is currently playing at the South Coast Repertory Theatre through November 16 (Tuesdays to Sundays only). Tickets start at $24 , so if you plan to purchase some please click this link or you can call the South Coast Repertory Box Office on: (714) 708-5555

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