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TBA Online: News & Features: March 2017

Cooking up a Memorable "Aubergine"

Wednesday, March 15, 2017   (0 Comments)
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 By Sam Hurwitt

In January Theatre Bay Area announced that Julia Cho’s Aubergine had won the Will Glickman Award for best play to premiere in the Bay Area in 2016, selected by a panel of five local theater critics (including myself). The award was presented at Theatre Bay Area’s Annual Conference on March 13.

In Aubergine, Ray, a chef with an uncanny intuitive ability to prepare exactly the perfect meal for each person, has put cooking aside to take care of his dying father. A bittersweet and touching reflection on the role of food in memory, family, and letting go of a loved one, the play premiered at Berkeley Rep in February 2016, directed by artistic director Tony Taccone.

Aubergine was originally commissioned by Berkeley Rep and developed in the theater’s new works program, The Ground Floor. In the fall of 2016, the play had its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, in a new production directed by Kate Whoriskey but starring two of the same actors. Next season Cho will be back at Berkeley Rep with her play Office Hour, which she wrote immediately after “Aubergine” and originally premiered at South Coast Rep in April 2016.

Cho talked to me about Aubergine on the phone from her home in Los Angeles.

Playwright Julia Cho. Photo by Jennie Warren.

What was the genesis of this play?

It started with Berkeley Rep. They have The Ground Floor project every year, and in 2012 they asked 20 playwrights to each write a short play about food. At the time they asked me, I hadn’t written a play in a little while. Basically the play is about the passing of a parent, which was something I had experienced since the play previous to Aubergine. I never really intended to write a play about that, but I think the fact that it was a play about food maybe tricked me into writing about other things, because food itself is such a vessel for so many other things. Food is a vessel for culture or for relationships, and what we eat to a large extent determines who we are.

We got together, we read the short plays, we had a really wonderful time hearing each other’s work. But then it came to an end, and I still had this short play about food. I asked Madeleine [Oldham, director of The Ground Floor] if it would be okay if I took a crack at expanding it into a full-length play, because I felt there was more there. Madeleine and Tony and Berkeley Rep were really supportive of that.

We got together I think in January of 2015, and Berkeley Rep cast some wonderful actors and we all heard the full-length play for the first time. Soon after that, Tony and I had a long talk, and he said he’d like to do the play. That following summer we workshopped the play at The Ground Floor again, and then in winter of 2016, almost a year after we had our first reading, we had the premiere of the play. It was very unusual in that the entire genesis, incubation, development and production all happened with Berkeley Rep.

How would you describe the way the themes of food and grief interact in the play?

The two things are very much interwoven, probably because when we think of death it’s so much in terms of sacraments. Eating and breathing are kind of the markers of life. Because the play is about the process of hospice, it’s about the slow taking away of those things and what that does to the people around the loved one. It’s also about the memories of food, the way food creates family. One of the defining things of family is these are the people that I come together to eat with. Throughout the play, there’s a lot of people remembering eating with their loved ones and what their favorite meals are and why.

How do you think this play fits into your body of work?

I don’t know. I think my perspective will change as I continue to get older. But I definitely feel it’s a play I couldn’t have written before. After The Language Archive, which came out in 2010, it was a long period of time between that play and Aubergine. That long time away was interesting for me, because I didn’t know how it would affect my writing when I came back. I can’t quite figure out how, but I think there was something that shifted in that time.

One interesting thing is that one character has a monologue at the beginning and doesn’t show up again until the very end.

The original short play had those stories much more. People just talked to you about their favorite meal. So it wasn’t so much that she belonged in the play as because she was part of that original spark. It’s funny because she’s definitely a part of the play that sticks out, and I’ve increasingly found that the more I write, the things that stick out are the things that interest me more. Those things that maybe when I was younger I would have smoothed out, as I get older I like that they stick out a bit, that they’re a little off.

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theater critic for the Mercury News, East Bay Times and Marin Independent Journal.