By Julia Cho
Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Peet’s Theatre
February 5–March 27, 2016
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
An estranged son, a father who’s ill, a visiting uncle carrying their memories in tow, a woman without an appetite, and a refugee from a forgotten country—they all prove potent ingredients in this bittersweet and moving meditation on family, forgiveness, and the things that nourish us. When language fails, when the past fades, the perfect meal transcends time and culture and says more than words ever can. Julia Cho’s plays have garnered critical praise from New York to Los Angeles. Now she pairs with Michael Leibert Artistic Director Tony Taccone on the elegant, poignant, and lyrical Aubergine.
Aubergine was commissioned by Berkeley Rep and developed in The Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work.
Julia Cho · Playwright
Tony Taccone · Director
Wilson Chin · Scenic Design
Linda Cho · Costume Design
Jiyoun Chang · Lighting Design
Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen · Composition / Sound Design
Aaron Rhyne · Projection Design
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Hansol Jung · Translator / Dialect Coach
Leslie M. Radin · Stage Manager
Ricky Lurie · Assistant Costume Designer
Brady Brophy-Hilton · Assistant Director
A. Ram Kim · Assistant Scenic Designer
Ravi Rakkulchon · Assistant Scenic Designer
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Safiya Fredericks · Diane
Tyrone Mitchell Henderson · Lucien
Tim Kang · Ray
Jennifer Lim · Cornelia
Jennifer McGeorge · Hospital worker
Sab Shimono · Ray’s father
Joseph Steven Yang · Uncle
“Sweet, savory and uncommonly nourishing, Aubergine at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is a theatrical banquet from start to finish. You’ll laugh, often. You’ll cry, maybe more than once. But most of all, you’ll probably feel fully engrossed in the people, ideas and language of playwright Julia Cho…A combination of theatrical ingredients so fulfilling that a standing ovation is in order. My compliments to all of the chefs.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“The play is sad, funny, insightful and deeply moving. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that has become a powerful theatrical experience directed with a strong, sensitive hand by Tony Taccone and performed by a cast that seems to fully appreciate the play’s quiet impact…It is as heartbreaking as it is life affirming, an exquisite meal prepared with superior skill and served with love.”—Theater Dogs
“Tenderly directed by Tony Taccone…Aubergine is a thoughtful new drama that satisfies the need for theater that grapples with the core of what it means to be human. It’s an unmistakably fulfilling theatrical experience.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“In Aubergine, a moving new play by Julia Cho, a meal is more than a meal. It’s a form of communication, freighted with history, private meaning, hope for the future and grief for the past…Cho’s playwriting style isn’t at all ingratiating, but it lures us into caring about characters who never fail to surprise us with their simple humanity. This is a rare form of entertainment, closer perhaps to enlightenment than we are accustomed to in these days of superficial distraction. Berkeley Rep honors this touching new drama by trusting that restraint combined with sincerity is enough to keep us hooked.”—Los Angeles Times
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I have just left you there,
there on a bed of unborn flowers
and undiscovered planets,
drifting among holes
of indiscriminate darkness.
Sleep in that place
brings only the freedom
of having no history
save what is discarded to dreams:
the lost shoelace,
your favorite brush,
the proverbial house
by the sea,
the roar of everything
There you lie,
tumbling without self,
the density grappling
to find light,
to find weightlessness,
some tiny movement
that leads to some place
some other land
of giants and seeds,
the soil of each others
Prologue: from the Managing Director
After a nine-month hiatus, the Peet’s Theatre is back online! Any of you who have ever renovated your home will appreciate how relieved we are that the building reopened on time and on budget! We were blessed to have a team of architects, contractors, sub-contractors, consultants, and Berkeley Rep staff members who worked so well together to bring us to this point.
Some of the changes are very visible to the public, like the newly refurbished seats, the new bathrooms, the Constellation Acoustic System from Meyer Sound, the handrails, added accessible seats, upgraded assistive listening devices, new box office and bar, and the improved signage. There is also so much you can’t see but that will still improve your experience here, like new wiring and communications systems and fire safety systems. In the end, we’ve accomplished our goal of preserving a theatre that has been valued by so many people for over 35 years while bringing it up to the new safety and technological standards expected of a contemporary theatre. It is our sincere hope that we do not need to do this again for another 35 years!
All of these efforts have been made for only two reasons. We are here to support artists and artisans as they make fantastic, engaging, terrifying, provocative, and moving theatre. And we want that work to be experienced in all its glory by you. If we’ve done our job right, you will sit back and be able to give your full attention to Aubergine. That is, after all, the point of the exercise. What an honor it is to be able to reopen the space with Julia Cho’s intimate, personal play with this talented cast directed by our own Tony Taccone.
Many of you responded to our request for support for the renovation of the Peet’s Theatre. All of us here at Berkeley Rep are grateful for the enthusiastic response. We say it all the time and that makes it no less true, but we really couldn’t do it without you.
The inextricable link between food and memory
By Sarah Rose Leonard
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”—Marcel Proust
Proust describes this sensation of remembrance in his famous seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927), which is psychologically and allegorically based on his life. This passage, known as the “episode of the madeleine,” occurs early in the first volume and is a famously notable description of the way food can trigger memories. After a depressing day, the narrator eats a madeleine dipped in tea and is overcome with emotion. He can’t understand why he feels so euphoric after eating a tea-soaked cookie, so he takes another bite, and another, but still can’t figure out why he’s feeling this way. Suddenly, a memory floods back. He remembers that when he was a child, his aunt used to give him a bite of her madeleine cookie that had been dipped in tea. An image of her house floats back to him “like the scenery of a theatre,” and then he can see the town: “the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands…” Proust’s sequence about this phenomenon is so detailed that scientists often refer to it in their studies on how involuntary memory works; taste and smell can activate not only a memory, but also the emotions stored within the memory. This connection between smell/taste and memory is often called the “the Proust Phenomenon.” Most scientists are quick to qualify that Proust’s description is literary, not scientific, but there is some truth in his description of how the triggering functions.
When we talk about how taste activates memory, we are often actually talking about smell. Unlike the other senses, smells are processed in a unique way that provides fast access to both emotional and memory areas of the brain. In more scientific words, the olfactory bulb, which processes smell, has direct connections to the amygdala (emotional part of the brain) and the hippocampus (memory area of the brain). This intimate connection between the olfaction, emotion, and memory regions of the brain is one reason scientists claim that smell brings back emotional memory in such an immediate way, just as Proust described. Scents are converted to memory based on our early exposures to them. When you smell a new scent, you link it to that moment—where you were, who you were with, how you were feeling. Most new odors are introduced in our childhood, which is why so many smells bring up memories of growing up. If you first smelled vanilla while helping your mom make chocolate chip cookies when you were five, you might link a whiff of vanilla to that moment. And maybe you get unexpectedly emotional when you smell vanilla because you are actually thinking about your mom.
Smell isn’t the only aspect of a meal that has the potential to bring up emotions related to our personal history. The words we use for the foods we love can also bring back memories, though these recollections can be less individual and more linked to our family history. Language deeply informs how we perceive traditional foods—their names root them in their culture. Think about the word “aubergine” versus “eggplant.” If English is your first language, “eggplant” may make you think of an unromantic food which, one could fairly surmise, resembles a large egg, whereas “aubergine” invokes a pretty French food that sounds quite special and rare. Immigrants from South America have said that the word “cookie” makes them think of an American chocolate chip cookie, whereas “galleta” (Spanish for cookie) makes them think of cookies from their home countries. When you learn words for familiar foods in a new language, suddenly they have a new life.
Great-grandmothers live on through their injera, tam maak hoong, pastel de choclo, springerle; they are immortalized through recipes handed down from generation to generation. Through food we become viscerally embedded in our lineages. Bonny Wolf, a journalist and food writer, remarks on how people repeat family food patterns without a clear rationale. She recounts a story from a woman who always cut off one end of a roast before cooking it because that’s what her mother and grandmother did. When this woman asked her grandmother why cutting one end off was a tradition, her grandmother replied that it was only because the roast didn’t fit in her pan. Another woman, Miriam, recalled how when she was newly married, she went to her husband’s Zadie (Yiddish for Grandpa), who was a baker in Brooklyn, to ask him for his honey cake recipe, because it was her husband’s favorite dessert. He described the process to her (which had no measurements whatsoever), and showed her how he lined the cake tin with a paper bag. Whenever Miriam makes honey cake, she takes out the same paper bag he showed her 30 years ago to make sure she measures her modern baking sheets correctly. Every time she makes the cake, her husband travels back in time to when he was little, picking honey crumbs off a paper bag in the back of a bakery, though really he is 60 years old and sitting at his dining room table. Family food traditions morph as they pass from one generation to the next, tying in new memories of your childhood tastes, your parents’ quirks, and your tribe’s long-held customs.
Some children of immigrants can have a contentious relationship with food, as it may be a point of tension between the cultural practices the family maintains at home and the ones they encounter outside. Sruti Swaminathan, an Indian American, said in an article about this cultural divide, “Growing up, we ate traditional Indian food for breakfast and dinner every day and I would have had it for lunch, too, but unfortunately I was too embarrassed to bring Indian food to school.” Many first-generation Americans see eating American food as a rite of passage. People have described their first encounters with peanut butter and jelly, root beer, and Oreos as fraught; they remember fervently wanting to fit in, but also finding the food confusing and often disgusting. In chef Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh off the Boat he says he thought macaroni and cheese “stunk like feet.” For many, eventually these new foods become familiar and fold into their identities. When families are uprooted, food can become a stabilizing factor—it immediately creates a strong sense of identity and security.
This holds true for both new American food and a family’s traditional meals. Gathering with your community, tasting familiar recipes, and smelling comforting smells can instantaneously reestablish a sense of belonging for those who are in transition. As Proust points out, food bonds us to our roots and our emotions, providing us with our history and our present in one bite.
Now we are full
By Katie Craddock
Korean cuisine is bold, multifarious, and immensely popular across the world. Throngs of New Yorkers brave lengthy subway and bus journeys from across the boroughs to the major Korean hub of Flushing, Queens, to eat. They savor comforting bowls of savory bibimbap, warm rice topped with impeccably seasoned vegetables and a runny egg; sweet, tender marinated beef bulgogi; and scores of other mouthwatering dishes. In cities around the globe, friends flock to K-Towns (Koreatowns, or enclaves with many Korean businesses) for tasty Korean barbecue, a smooth South Korea-brewed OB Lager or two, and some good old-fashioned karaoke. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, D.C., London, Mexico City, Sydney, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and our own Oakland all have K-Towns, each offering a diverse array of Korean foods.
As Korea was a largely agrarian society until the conclusion of World War II, its cuisine features ingredients native to its fertile, mountainous terrain. While rice is a staple of modern Korean cuisine, it is not an indigenous crop to Korea; other grains, including barley, millet, and wheat, feature prominently in Korean cuisine and mythology. In folklore, two doves visit Jumong, the founding monarch of a Korean kingdom in the first century BCE, to bring him barley seeds for his newly established kingdom. Another myth describes deities delivering grain seeds to princesses to originate farming in their kingdom. Rice, on the other hand, was so expensive when it was first introduced in Korea that people mixed it with cheaper grains, creating dishes like boribap (rice with barley). Due to Korea’s abundant coastline, its cuisine has long featured all manner of seafood and shellfish. In coastal communities, working-class diets centered around fish, oysters, and clams, as only the wealthy could afford to eat livestock like sheep and pigs. Legumes are another prominent feature—they’ve been cultivated as a crop in Korea for 3,000 years, with soybeans appearing as milk, tofu, thickener, and many fermented pastes, and mung beans molded into noodles, jellies, and pancakes. To survive their cold winters, early Korean societies developed highly effective fermenting, drying, and salting methods to preserve meats and vegetables, still used today.
Many dishes that used to be tied to specific regions are now served across Korea and in Korean restaurants around the world. Modern Korean meals are characterized by the ubiquitous presence of kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish (often made with cabbage and seasoned with red pepper flakes). Korean families often have two refrigerators: one special refrigerator is just for making kimchi, which is kept at a cooler temperature and with higher humidity than a typical fridge, providing an ideal environment for fermentation. A Korean meal will typically include abundant banchan, or side dishes, which are all served at the same time. Banchan may include a dizzying array of vegetables, grains, and seafood that are served grilled, steamed, raw, or fermented. In restaurants, the main meat course is often cooked on a charcoal grill in the middle of the table, and each diner has an individual bowl of rice, usually cooked in an iron pot. To drink, beverages (eumcheong) include tea, sweet rice milk, and persimmon punch. While soju, a clear spirit made from grains or sweet potatoes, is the most famous Korean liquor, South Korea also produces popular rice-brewed beer, rice wine, and several fruit and herbal wines. For dessert, during holidays and festivals, Koreans traditionally eat rice cakes with a filling or topping (popular flavors include mung bean, red bean, pine nut, and sweet pumpkin). More everyday sweets range from the fried confectionary yumilgwa to flower-shaped yakgwa biscuits made with honey and sesame to suksilgwa, a boiled fruit, ginger, or nut dish molded into various shapes.
As scrumptious as these dishes are, they’re also meant to be good for you. Korean food is traditionally seen as medicinal—both as preventive medicine via proper nutrition and even as capable of healing illness. Medicinal food, boyangsik, encompasses a wide variety of Korean food prepared and consumed for its healing properties—from raw potato juice for an upset stomach, to dried fish with bean sprouts and tofu for hangovers, to ginseng for an energy boost. Korea has a rich history of preparing specific foods to prevent or cure illness, rooted partly in Taoist philosophies, which characterize health as a state of balance in which yin and yang, the energetic qualities that created the five elements (wood, fire, soil, metal, and water), are in balance. Traditional Korean meals will include dishes or garnishes in five colors to represent these elements. Today, fermented food, from kimchi to kefir to kombucha, is gaining recognition for its probiotics, which aid in digestion and nutrient absorption. Healing soup remedies include ginseng-chicken for maintaining a healthy temperature, ox bone or short rib for strength during winter, abalone for the liver, and beef bone for fatigue.
Korean temple cuisine is garnering attention from renowned chefs and food critics worldwide due to the work of Jeong Kwan, a Zen Buddhist nun who gardens and cooks at a remote hermitage nearly 200 miles south of Seoul. In October 2015, the New York Times’ Jeff Gordinier spent several days at her temple, observing that “long before Western coinages like ‘slow food,’ ‘farm-to-table’ and ‘locavore,’ generations of unsung masters at spiritual refuges like Chunjinam were creating a cuisine of refinement and beauty out of whatever they could rustle up from the surrounding land. Foraging? Fermenting? Dehydrating? Seasonality? Been there, done that—Jeong Kwan and her peers at monasteries throughout Korea have a millennia-spanning expertise in these currently in-vogue methods.” Kwan explains that she grows her own food because “that is how I make the best use of a cucumber. Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber. Because I grow them personally…I have poured in my energy.” Rather than emphasizing betcha-can’t-have-just-one capitalist craveability, Kwan’s food is meant to nourish without inciting an insatiable desire for more, in alignment with Buddhist principles of non-attachment. As Diane imagines in Aubergine, the right food can provide a feeling of “we were hungry before but now we are full”—it can make us sated, content, and complete.
Memorable meals in literature
By Sarah Rose Leonard
Food has a long, established history of being the subject of a written work. There is something about describing a meal that renders it eternal, immortalizing it when in fact food is as mortal as we are. From Jane Austen to Haruki Murakami, novelists have paid close attention to food as a conduit for information about characters and their cultures. Clues about a character’s personality, the drama of a moment, or a detail about a relationship lie in descriptions of meals. A character’s food choices often tell us more about their state of mind than their words do. There is also the curious sensation that a character is real when we read about their eating habits—they get hungry just like us. Below is a selection of quotes that express how descriptions of food can give us subtle pieces of information about culture and emotion.
To the Lighthouse
By Virginia Woolf
She peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion—a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival […] “It is a triumph,” said Mr. Bankes, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked. How did she manage these things in the depths of the country? he asked her. She was a wonderful woman. All his love, all his reverence, had returned; and she knew it. “It is a French recipe of my grandmother’s,” said Mrs. Ramsay, speaking with a ring of great pleasure in her voice. Of course it was French. What passes for cooking in England is an abomination (they agreed). It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables. “In which,” said Mr. Bankes, “all the virtue of the vegetable is contained.”
By Ralph Ellison
I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom—simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper. To hell with all that, and as sweet as the yam actually was, it became like nectar with the thought. If only someone who had known me at school or at home would come along and see me now. How shocked they’d be!
By Jhumpa Lahiri
On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves.
The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
Arrayed on the Ladies’ Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar…Avocados are my favorite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and French dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce. The crabmeat tasted bland in comparison […] I had a vision of the celestially white kitchens of Ladies’ Day stretching into infinity. I saw avocado pear after avocado pear being stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise and photographed under brilliant lights. I saw the delicate, pink-mottled claw meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise and the bland yellow pear cup with its rim of alligator-green cradling the whole mess. Poison.
By Naguib Mahfouz
Uncle Kamil and Abbas, the barber, always have breakfast together from a tray placed between them containing plates of cooked beans, onion salad, and pickled gherkins. They each approach their food in a different manner. Abbas devours his roll of bread in a few seconds. Uncle Kamil, on the other hand, is slow and chews each piece of food laboriously until it almost dissolves in his mouth. He often says, “Good food should first be digested in the mouth.” So it is that Abbas will have finished eating his food, sipping his tea and smoking his pipe while his friend is still slowly munching his onions. Kamil, therefore, prevents Abbas from taking any of his share by always dividing the food into two separate sections.
By Sherman Alexie
They all waited for the feast to officially begin. But the term feast was a holdover from a more prosperous and traditional time, a term used before the Indians were forced onto the reservations. There was never a whole lot of food, just a few stringy pieces of deer meat, a huge vat of mashed potatoes, Pepsi, and fry bread. But the fry bread made all the difference. A good piece of fry bread turned any meal into a feast. Everybody sat at the tables and waited for the cooks to come out with the meal, the fry bread. They waited and waited.
Five Questions for Julia Cho
1. When and how did you know you wanted to become a writer?
When I was young, maybe about six, one day I decided to start drawing. I suppose I’d already been drawing before then—you know, the way kids naturally draw as soon as they can pick up a crayon—but I suddenly had this idea to make a concentrated effort to draw and do it every day. I have no idea where that impulse came from, but I think I wanted to know how to draw, so I figured I’d do it every day and eventually I’d become a good drawer.
So from that day forth, I drew every single day. It got to the point where if I didn’t draw, it wouldn’t feel right. I did this for many years. You’d think by the time I was in high school, I’d be Picasso or something, but no. I was passable, but did not have much talent. And eventually I stopped. But I look back now and see that it was a kind of training. I went into my room, closed the door, and made up things in my head, which I put onto paper. At the time, I had no inkling I would be a writer. But that decision to draw something every day, at some point transitioned into a desire to write something every day. It’s the same impulse. The adult and the child are the same.
2. Do you have any rituals or routines you keep to with regard for writing?
None, other than lots of coffee. When I’m desperate, I write out contracts for myself where I promise to get a certain project done by a certain time. I sign and date them and everything. But no, I have no regular ritual or routine. I wish I did.
3. What’s unique about writing for the stage?
Lately, I’ve begun to realize how very brief the lives of most plays are. A few productions, maybe, and then it’s gone. If it’s published, that preserves one aspect of it. But the entire experience of it, the realization of those words on paper, is ephemeral and perhaps that’s the way it should be.
4. How does being a writer inform the way you see or interact with the world?
I hope being a writer has developed my empathy and curiosity. Those are the muscles I seem to need most when I try to write anything. But as far as my day-to-day life, I think because I get to do something I believe in for a living (I wouldn’t say “love” because some days I don’t love writing or feel like it loves me), I seek out others who do the same as well as those who aren’t doing what they want but would desperately like to.
5. What haven’t you done yet that you’d like to do?
I would like to go out and meet the true world for myself, see its true face and hear its true stories.
Behind the scenes: Tyrone Mitchell Henderson
Tyrone Mitchell Henderson talks about his character Lucien and performing in Julia Cho’s Aubergine.
Behind the scenes: Tim Kang
Tim Kang talks about his character of Ray in Julia Cho’s Aubergine.
Julia Cho’s play earned delicious reviews. See clips, then reserve your seats!
Behind the scenes: Sab Shimono
Sab Shimono talks about his character of Ray’s father in Julia Cho’s Aubergine.
Behind the scenes: Jennifer Lim
Jennifer Lim talks about Aubergine and her character Cornelia.
Aubergine on TV
Check out our TV spot for Julia Cho’s Aubergine.
Meet the playwright
Julia Cho talks about the inspiration for her play, Aubergine.
Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s Michael Leibert Artistic Director, introduces Julia Cho’s bittersweet meditation on family and forgiveness.
Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com
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Hungry for more? The literary department is happy to serve you additional reading and podcasts about Julia Cho, delicious food, and how smell elicits memories.
Food and memory
- John S. Allen, a research scientist at Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California (and a UC Berkeley grad) examines our evolving relationship with food in a selection from his book, The Omnivorous Mind. Includes a podcast with Allen.
- Bonny Wolf, NPR Weekend Edition food commentator, talks about how food traditions are passed down from generation to generation.
- A narrative piece about writer Keith Pandolfi’s evolving, contentious relationship with coffee.
The “Proust phenomenon”
- The famed passage from Proust’s epic novel, in which a taste of a madeleine cookie triggers a childhood memory. The term “the Proust phenomenon,” which refers to memories brought on from taste and smell, was coined from this text.
- Author Julian Baggini examines the Proust phenomenon through experimenting with childhood food in an attempt to bring back memories.
Food in literature and media
- An NPR All Things Considered story on graphic designer Dinah Fried’s book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals.
- A documentary series on Netflix that profiles one world-renowned chef per episode.
- A Mayo Clinic article defines hospice and explains how it is administered and financed in the United States.