Aubergine, playing at Berkeley Rep is full of life lessons in hope, love, forgiveness and loss. Death is the inevitable finale we will all face one day but living is full of complexities that we can’t deter from regardless of knowing what our fate will be. Ray (Tim Kang) has to face the fact that his father is going to die after being placed in hospice care. A fact he ignored until his caretaker Lucien (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) said the word hospice out loud, which is when patients are released from the hospital to live out their last days at home. Layers of disconnect are revealed after this conversation.
Ray has a hard time handling his emotions and has shut himself off to the outside world including girlfriend, Cornelia (Jennifer Lim). Lucien starts to ask him about relatives and he tells him that his father has a brother in Korea. The realization to call that brother is then coaxed, as he couldn’t figure it out on his own. His lack of Korean linguistic skills forces him to reach out to Cornelia because she’s the only person he knows that speaks fluently.
She expresses her disappointment in his disappearance until he finally tells her that his father is dying and he needs her help to communicate with his uncle (Joseph Steven Yang). He dials the phone while she exclaims, “I haven’t agreed” and then hands the phone to her to tell his uncle about Ray’s father’s death. This causes comical relief but also exemplifies the sadness of lost connections when raising a child at a vast distance from the family’s origin.
A highlight of the play that has to be experienced is when the uncle unexpectedly arrives from Korea. He’s forced to go into a miming interpretation of the events that lead him to be by his brother side with Ray. Ray has never met his uncle and has no idea what he looks like. Yang did an excellent job that had many wanting to give a standing ovation after the first act.
Through Ray’s uncle, we learn more about the dad’s plight in leaving his family. His mom was extremely hurt when she had to let him leave for America. He also never had the taste buds for food. Her final attempt was a turtle soup she made prior to his departure that finally put a smile on his face. Her hopes were to ignite comfort in him so that he would stay but she realized she had to let him go. Most parents want the best for their children and we often forget that our parents were once young too.
When it came to Ray, the father was practical and tried to teach his son these lessons. He also didn’t tell him that he knew he was going to die. Ray starts to realize that his father was always trying to protect him from disappointment. Ray is a chef and always felt like a failure because of his dad’s lack of enthusiasm for his career. If he had been able to keep in touch with the family he might’ve heard stories about the dad’s lack of taste in food sooner and known it wasn’t personal.
The first act was flawless as it was thought provoking and full of laughable moments. Lucien kept telling Ray to go take a bath, a walk, something besides sitting by his dad’s bed. He feared he’d miss his last breathe but Lucien reminds him that no matter what we do, things will happen when they’re meant to.
The second act involves several monologues about concepts already established in the play. There wasn’t much to marinate on as the characters told you what you should be thinking. Cornelia’s speech was an exception because it let us know a little more about her and how her mom utilized abundance of food as a signifier of love. It also displayed the polarizing relationship with food that many immigrants experience. If you don’t finish it, than you don’t appreciate the work that went into it. Her rebellious side led her to processed foods because food became about control. It would be interesting to see a play based on her.
The uncle provided Ray with the turtle soup recipe at one point and after multiple nostalgic scenes around food, family, culture and memories you’d think he’d attempt to make it. He did however make Lucien a meal with eggplants from his country. Everyone has a perfect meal or food in his or her present moment except the dad. The only proof that he wasn’t pretending to like the soup his mom made because he knew he was leaving would’ve been him liking it in the present. All we know is that he barely liked food so why was this the surrounding theme to his death? There’s a monologue by a character named Diane (Safiya Fredericks) in the beginning, she comes back at the end to eat at Ray and Cornelia’s new restaurant, to close the story line. However, it seems unnecessary because of this break in the food connection aspect of the play. Overall, it was an enjoyable play that brings up themes we often avoid discussing with our family.
Written by: Julia Cho
Directed by: Michael Leibert
Artistic Director: Tony Taccone
February 5–March 27, 2016
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $35-$89 and are subject to change at any time.
Tip: Weeknight tickets tend to cost less than weekends.
Aubergine was commissioned by Berkeley Rep and developed in The Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work.