Harper Watched: Aubergine at Playwrights Horizons

via Playwrights Horizons
Last weekend I went to see a play that I'd been dying to see since I'd heard about it. Aubergine at Playwrights Horizons represents an opportunity to see my experiences on stage in a way I rarely have the opportunity to see them. Written by Julia Cho-- a Korean American woman-- this was the first play I'd ever seen that was written and performed by other Korean Americans.

Growing up Asian American, you see very few people like you on television, and when you do you're a sidekick, a delivery guy, a martial artist, a submissive girlfriend with no lines-- a caricature. In terms of media representation, Asian Americans are kind of where Black Americans were at in the 60s. It's so important to me as an Asian American to support Asian American art, because it's through art that we not only see ourselves reflected back at us, but we are validated in that others are seeing us and our experiences in a way they never have before.

So I found my way to Playwrights Horizons, a theater I absolutely adore, to see Aubergine. It's a drama about tensions surrounding family, death, immigrant parent / first generation American dynamics, and relationships decaying and coming back together. And it's all told through the lens of food.

via Playwrights Horizons

The Story

Ray Park is a late-thirty-something chef born to an immigrant father who has no taste for food. Their relationship is strained at best. And his father is dying.

Ray is left to care for his father in his childhood home as his father lives out his final days, and in this time he copes with not only his father's impending demise, but his own relationship with his father, his feelings on his own identity, mortality at large, and other connections to people he cares about. Ray's father is cared for by a hospice nurse named Lucien who has seen more than his fair share of death and still finds the blessings in his work, and Ray turns to his on-again-off-again girlfriend Cornelia for help.

In Aubergine, food is used as a time machine. It informs moments in time, places, people, culture, homes, and families. Each character has an aside where they tell the audience about their favorite meal-- and it serves as a time capsule about a place and time when they felt connected to someone. While it is especially salient in a story about a man who is a chef and his dying father who cannot eat, food-as-memory and food-as-metaphor is a powerful tool that I wish more people made use of. Food transforms from life to dish to life-as-fuel. Food gives us life as nourishment, but also a means to show affection, to build community, and to share with loved ones. Just as many favorite dishes begin with humble components, we are just flesh and chemicals-- and yet there is so much more to us than the things we're made of.

Playwright Julia Cho makes us one with the food we eat in a way that many are less used to. Cho relates humanity to their food through the common thread of fleeting connections and emotions, altogether meaningless in the vast expanse of time. We are mortal beings with an infinite beginning and a finite end, just as any meal. Our food is not elevated from dishes to the ethical contemplation of human-like suffering. Rather, we are reduced, in the face of mortality, to the mundane-yet-memorable, temporary-yet-transcendent nature of the food we eat.

Ultimately, the play is about making peace when we have the clarity and opportunity to do so. Making peace with fathers and girlfriends and disease. Making peace with mortality. It's sharp and compassionate.

Getting Down To Business

Aubergine presents a very nuanced view on family and death. It finds the blessings in a death by sickness. It promotes comfort when soon-to-be-bereft family seeks longevity. It demonstrates many ways of loving someone-- ways that might be filled with resentment, silence, apathy, and fear.

This play is intense and robust in its emotionality. For me as a 1st generation Korean American, I saw and felt so much of my own experience and my parents' experiences (they're half-generation Americans who came as children) on stage, and that was incredibly powerful in and of itself. The way children of immigrants carry the burdens of a pained history they are not aware of--whether due to a language barrier or the tendency for parents to spare their children from their hardships by simply swallowing them silently. The pressure to live up to parental expectation with the added layer of them sacrificing home, language, food, and comfort. The confusion and resentment that grows from rifts between the immigrant generation and their American offspring.

Outside the family, there is also a discussion of the peculiarities of being Korean American-- for example, having 4 refrigerators. (Mine had 3, perhaps a symptom of my parents being half-generation Americans.) Even the set dressings were just right, down to the tasseled slipper replicas on the china cabinet handles. There is something so validating in this casual attention. When Asian narratives are told in the West, we are often exotified, romanticized, demonized, or otherwise made other. In these carefully placed, but casually experienced details, the audience is at home. A Korean American home. This work is important. When you can see me as centered-- rather than marginalized or othered-- in art, you are better equipped to see me as a real person in the real world. It seems so simple, and yet it makes an immense difference, knowing I am being seen as not-other.

All that said, I'm not comfortable with the decision to bookend the play with a white woman who serves little other purpose in the show than as a frame. She eases the audience into the themes of food, memory, experience, life, and death with a monologue, and then returns only at the end to round out her story about her favorite meal. This is, in my opinion, a deliberate stepping stone into the main action, and it frustrates me that we're in a place where writers feel that is necessary. It feels like a concession made to those who find it too difficult to relate to the story as is-- a story about immigrants, Koreans and Korean Americans, refugees, and people of color. I don't fault the writer for this since the fact of the matter is, for the moment, it might be necessary. The fact is, some audiences will demand that art created by marginalized people "meet them half way." A standard that artists that represent groups that are not marginalized are not held to. Things are getting better, sure, but it's still very much alive the idea that Asian American work is niche and work by white Americans is for all audiences. The character felt mostly like a prop to soothe audience members who, in of all places a theater, would have a hard time suspending their disbelief enough to find the main plot relatable. It frustrates me that these choices must be made-- that large segments of audiences find it easier relate to cats and robots and apes than people who look like me.

The use of non-linear time-flow in the play is well-done, showing how moments that are years--decades apart, even-- collapse on themselves into the now. Our past feelings fold into and motivate our current reality. I am a huge fan of non-linear storytelling. However, I do think that stronger cues indicating shifts from the "current" story and visits to other times would be helpful. I didn't always catch when something was happening until a minute or so into the scene-- but maybe that's intentional. Perhaps we're supposed to be ill-equipped to navigate time, as a further statement on how we are not able to divorce experiences in the past from how we experience now.

Overall, this is a really beautiful, honest play about death that I would recommend highly. As frustrated as I am with the first and final scenes, the rest is authentic. It is important to me that others see this show, experience voices and homes that I know so well and that others see very little of. It's important that work by minority creators is supported and that other people experience it. In my mind, art exists to challenge audiences and expand their understanding of humanity. This play does that in a lot of ways. This is a play for anyone who has lost someone, or will lose someone. It's a play for children who even in adulthood feel misunderstood by their parents. It's a play for people who fear death, whether their own, or that of their loved ones. Tim Kang is phenomenal as Ray, and the tensions and missed connections are so very authentic to the 1st generation and immigrant experiences.

You can see Aubergine at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, now through October 2nd. Tickets are on sale online of at the box office, and those under 30 can subscribe as a Young Member for free to get a special rate on tickets-- $25 for you ($15 if you're a student) and $35 for one guest-- at all Playwrights Horizons performances.

Harper's Rating: 4 / 5

Emotional honesty about death, sickness, & family
Korean American representation #hereforit
Casual gaze at Korean American life
Brilliant use of food as memory and life/death
Turntable set (I honestly just LOVE turntable sets)
Complicated adult parent-child relationships
A refugee character talking about his experiences
Tim Kang killin' it
Dark humor
A hint of magical realism
The Diane character's existence frustrates me
You will ugly cry (or at least I did)
Implied turtle slaughter


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