Not long after my paternal grandfather passed away in 1986, my father told me a story of the last bag of fruit his dad ever purchased.
It was a bag of oranges, yet not a particularly good one. My grandfather by trade was a grafter in the southern Central Valley. In layman’s terms, a grafter is someone who takes a fruit from a particular tree and changes that fruit completely. It’s a noble skill, one that put my grandfather in elite status amongst his fellow farmworking comrades in the southern Central Valley.
That is what was so ironic about that final purchase of citrus. At his peak, my grandfather, like many of his peers and siblings, were fruit picking legends, their reverence for nature’s candy reflected daily in the fruit bowls that rested upon their family’s dinner tables. But yet, that final bag of fruit was a metaphor, foreshadowing the conclusion of a life sweeter than any ol’ bag of C & H.
That story rushed back to me as I sat in the newly refurbished Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep, where the potently delicious production of Julia Cho’s “Aubergine” examines the world of food, and how it connects us on a plethora of levels. Cho’s work here is similar to another of her pieces, “The Language Archive,” which examines how languages form connections. Directed sharply by Tony Taccone, moving throughout a simple, yet detailed set design by Wilson Chin, “Aubergine” is a play featuring lots of potent and powerful spices.
The story revolves around a high end chef named Ray (a powerful, rangy performance by Tim Kang). He is dealing with his Korean-born father (a compellingly understated Sab Shimono) who is locked in the grips of hospice, terminally ill with the only hope being that his comfort can become greatly enhanced with a softer mattress.
Ray is struggling in all of the most important ways – a love life with Cornelia (a powerful yet subtle Jennifer Lim) that is on the rocks, and a father who has never bothered to experience the best he had to offer, preferring the simple blandness of bad ramen to his son’s exotic soup collection with ingredients sliced by a $1900 knife.
The struggles of two worlds are further complicated by the arrival of Ray’s uncle (the wonderful Joseph Steven Yang), who bridges those worlds both culturally and culinarily. He is a man of the old country, speaking Korean as Cornelia translates, with which she took some serious liberties in some hilarious moments. But what the uncle does is remind Ray of why his cooking is so important. Ray’s noble pursuit as a chef has the power to sustain life, to bring joy to the tastebuds. Uncle forces Ray into some serious choices involving many things, but mostly, a turtle. As in, like, a live turtle.
While the through line of food as life is certainly mesmerizing, how the other piece of the play deals squarely with the end of life is pure magic. To this end, the most effective single portrayal, stunning in its transcendent simplicity, was the role of hospice worker Lucien, played with succulent wisdom by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson. His interpretation was one of meticulous detail – the gentle placing of a stethoscope on dad’s heart, smoothing of sheets to bring comfort, and a worldly perception that makes one rethink how a life must ultimately end. Lucien’s reverence for assisting a soul out of one world and into another makes him believe he has, “the best job in the world.” To see Ray reward him with a little morsel of his childhood is a fitting end to the moment when a hospice worker has to move on and escort the next soul into the next life.
While the ending of the play may have brought satisfaction on some levels, it was the abundance of endings that started to fall flat. But one ending in particular brought things together beautifully. Whether it is good or bad ramen, a delicious, sweet orange or even hot pastrami on a baguette, there is that one food which certainly connects one generation to the other. “Aubergine” is a reminder of that connection, and a reminder of the power of food – food that gives life, food that creates life, and ultimately, food that ends life.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Aubergine”
Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Tony Taccone
The Word: a beautiful, succulent story that shares how generations are bonded together through the foods that are passed on.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through March 27th
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $29 – $89
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org