When Everyman Theatre artistic director Vincent Lancisi saw the Off Broadway premiere production of Julia Cho’s “Aubergine” in 2016, he found himself hooked from the opening monologue of the play.
That speech is delivered by a woman who relates culinary adventures of a foodie, but also how even the simplest food became important when she learned that one of her parents had been given a fatal diagnosis.
“I leaned in during that monologue,” says Lancisi, who directs Everyman’s staging of “Aubergine” that opens this week — it’s a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, where it was staged first.
“I come from a culture where we eat when we’re sad, eat when we’re happy, eat when we’re distressed. Julia Cho is getting at the spirituality of food. She’s making a connection that people rarely make,” Lancisi says.
“Aubergine” — the more up-market-sounding name for eggplant — centers around Ray, an accomplished Korean-American chef caring for his dying father and dealing with their unresolved issues. The search for that resolution includes Ray’s preparing a turtle soup for his father, who never warmed to his son’s choice of career.
Another Korean-American, Ray’s former girlfriend Cornelia, becomes crucial to his efforts to cope, especially when his non-English-speaking uncle arrives from Korea.
In “Aubergine,” food is never far from the conversation or the introspection. And just as a baked treat, the madeleine, triggers important memories in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” food items help stir recollections and sentiments in “Aubergine.”
“When we taste something we tasted as a child, something a relative or loved one prepared, we remember that person and experience that love again,” says Tony Nam, who plays Ray.
Conflicts in “Aubergine” have much to do with things that haven’t been said, or said well enough. There are divides between father and son, father and brother, Ray and Cornelia. And all the while, the clock is ticking.
“This play is about communicating and connecting and valuing each other before it is too late,” Lancisi says. “And Julia Cho shows the younger generation paying homage to the older. I find that refreshing. There certainly are moments of sadness, but the overriding feeling is joy at seeing these different generations connect.”
“It works as an emotional currency,” Nam says. “Cultural and emotional barriers get in the way, but somehow, through food, things get communicated. It is really about meeting each other in a place that’s beyond words.”
This is something that rings true to Eunice Bae, who has the role of Cornelia in “Aubergine.”
“In Korean culture,” she says, “words are not the most commonly used [means to express] love; food and nurturing and caring absolutely are. In the play, it is a struggle for Ray to make the soup, but he does it because it’s his demonstration of love.”
The way the playwright expresses and details all of this strikes a deep chord with Nam.
“I cried the first time I read the play,” Nam says. “So much in it immediately connected with me. So much was very familiar. Julia did an amazing job capturing the Korean-American experience. I had never seen a play represent so much of our experience.”
The specific ethnic elements in “Aubergine,” including some lines spoken in Korean (translations are projected, a la supertitles for opera productions), do not make it limiting.
“I wondered how a non-Korean audience would react,” Nam says, “but when we did it at Olney, I heard from people of many different generations and backgrounds who loved it. The themes really do cut across generations and cultures.”
Adds Bae: “I have played a Vietnamese in ‘Miss Saigon,’ a Thai in ‘The King and I.’ This is the first time ever I get to play someone of my own culture, not just ‘Asian female.’ I can bring my own self to the role.”
For Lancisi, “Aubergine” represents “a great American story, an immigrant story.” Cho may not have intended any political messages, but her play may prompt them anyway.
“The immigration issue is so divisive,” Bae says. “It was humiliating to see our president recently talk about a snake as the story of an immigrant. Hopefully this play will show the truth of immigration — people working hard, serving in the military, having struggles. That’s important to see right now.”