EXCERPTS FROM THE ARTICLE
Below are excerpts from JMore's March 14, 2018 interview with Aubergine director Vincent M. Lancisi.
Written by Los Angeles-based playwright and screenwriter Julia Cho and produced in conjunction with the Olney Theatre Center, “Aubergine” is the story of an intergenerational Korean-American family struggling to connect across the emotional and cultural chasms over a home-cooked meal. Washington City Paper called “Aubergine” a “richly layered play about food, memory, and immigrant families.”
Jmore recently spoke with the play's director Vincent M. Lancisi about “Aubergine” and its statement on families and the American immigrant experience.
Jmore: What’s food’s role in “Aubergine”?
VL: Julia Cho really makes a spiritual connection between the relationships in life and the food memories associated with them. It’s so fiercely original and spoke to me in a way that most plays don’t. When I saw it in New York, I watched the audience having this experience. They are connecting to this father and son. The son happens to be a chef. He prepares a traditional dish for his dad, that his dad used to prepare for him.
Does a meal need to be elaborate to trigger memories?
Sometimes, it’s the simplest food in the world. There’s a monologue in the play where a young Korean-American woman talks about the same chef. He wants to cook a meal for her, trying to impress her, and when she gets there all he has for her is this bowl of berries. And he says, “I don’t know why, but somehow I felt this was the right meal to make for you.” These berries that she used to pick when she was a child with her dad. It was the strongest food memory she had.
What food triggers visceral memories for you?
My Nonna [Italian for grandmother] made sugo, Italian for sauce. She used to start making Sunday supper on [the preceding] Monday. She would start with a huge metal pot on the stove and put the burner on low. As the days progressed, she would add things to it. She’d throw some noodles or leftover chicken into the pot. By the end of the week, there were likely four or five different meats in that pot. It reduced and reduced and reduced, and she’d throw in some fresh tomatoes, and it would reduce and reduce.
The sauce was unparalleled. I’ve never had anything like it. I’ve tried to recreate it and I can’t. When she was cooking, it was an expression of nurturing, of delighting the senses, of providing comfort and nourishment to the people she loved.
She wasn’t happy if you weren’t eating many, many courses, until you were so full of her love that you …
...Would want to take a nap?
My mother grew up in the Irish meat-and-potatoes world, and my Irish relatives would come over for Nonna’s dinner not knowing what to expect. The pasta first course would come and it was pasta like nothing they’d ever experienced before. And she would of course say, “Here, have more, have more.” Second helping, third helping, and then out would come the roast. They thought the meal was done, they were already full to bursting. And then they would eat the roast and the roasted potatoes and the vegetables and the dessert. Hours and hours and hours of eating.
Has this affected you as an adult?
I eat when I’m happy; I eat when I’m sad. I cook for my wife when I want to woo her or thank her or show my love for her.
Asian-Americans tend to be underrepresented in film and theater. Does “Aubergine” break new ground?
The actor who plays the lead in this, Tony Nam, I asked him the other day, “How many Korean roles have you played in your career?” He said this is the first. I was shocked. It’s also true for the actress Eunice Bae, who plays his girlfriend in the play. Name another Korean-American play.
Is the play as much about the immigrant experience as the Korean-American experience?
When people ask me what the play is about, I talk about it as a very funny and moving play about food, family and memory. Yes it’s a Korean-American story – the uncle comes over from the old country and doesn’t speak English, and there are themes around the nephew who doesn’t speak Korean trying to navigate his way around this uncle he doesn’t know very well. But really if you came from an immigrant family, which most of us do, it feels familiar. If you’ve ever had anybody in your household whose native tongue was a different language, it’s very familiar. It’s an immigrant story, definitely.
A parable for our times?
Yes, although it isn’t written expressly to do that. There are things that I, as a man in his 50s, recognize from my childhood that don’t exist enough today. For instance, there’s a real reverence for older generations. There are a couple of moments where homage is paid to the hard-working nature of our parents, thanking them for all they’ve provided for us, their efforts to give their children the best they can. That’s kind of refreshing in the play. So many times when you’re talking about intergenerational plays today, you’re talking about a divide between generations. Millennials writing about their Baby Boomer parents from a very different lens.
What would you like audiences to take away from “Aubergine”?
I want audiences to look at food in a different way. To see that food is a kind of a legacy and a way of expressing ourselves that is as important as history.