In third grade, Eunice Bae brought a pan of red bean mochi squares to her school in northern Virginia for the class’s Culture Day. The squares, her favorite childhood dessert, went nearly untouched amidst an array of lasagna and macaroni. “Why can’t we have regular brownies?” she remembers asking her mom at the end of the day, desperate to fit in with the rest of her classmates.
Growing up in a Korean household, Bae was raised on foods such as these mochi squares. Throughout her childhood, she remembers her father making pre-packaged ramen if she was up late at night – with an egg sometimes, if he was feeling fancy. She grew up knowing how to speak Korean. In Pre-K, however, this was easily replaced by English, and it took her several years of supplementary Korean school to learn how to read and write in the first language.
Bae, who now works in New York as an actress, enjoys baking herself, but as of yet, has not tried her hand at the fateful mochi squares. Right now, she likes making French macarons, which she feels are incredibly rewarding, even if the process is tedious and the macarons themselves tend to be “very fidgety.”
Her most recent project is a joint production of Julia Cho’s 2016 play “Aubergine,” which just finished its run at Olney Theatre Center and will open at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore on Friday. It is a story of “food, family, and memory,” and to celebrate the play’s unique tie to food, the cast was asked to submit recipes that have made an impact on their lives.
The first dish Bae thought of were those red bean mochi squares from her childhood. It had been so long since she had eaten them that she even had to call her mom to get the recipe. Now that she has it, she intends to dive back into that world – once she returns to New York and a suitable amount of kitchen space.
“Aubergine,” the French word for eggplant, tells the story of a classically trained chef, named Ray, who cares for an ailing father, using his cooking to reconnect with his dad when his words cannot bridge the gap. Ray, who cannot speak Korean, also enlists the help of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Cornelia, played by Bae, to help him rebuild his relationship with his father in his native tongue.
When Bae first read the script for “Aubergine,” she was sitting on a bench in New York City in the middle of the Aids Memorial Park, crying. “I looked like a crazy person,” she says, laughing. “It’s a really beautiful, simple show.”
Her favorite part of the show is watching everyone in the cast perform their monologues. At the Olney Theatre Center, there was a secret space in the wings where Bae could sit to watch everyone onstage. She’s hopeful that Everyman Theatre will have the same set-up.
Bae, who has played Vietnamese, Filipino, and Thai characters over the course of her career, has never before been offered a role as a Korean-American. She sees the script as incredibly “familiar” and similar to her own story of growing up, right down to the late night cup noodles.
Audience members also find themselves reconnecting with their own past throughout the show, remembering the foods and accompanying memories that made the most impact on them. After one particular show, a young woman from Cameroon came up to Bae, saying the show made her crave aubergine, a food she has not had since she was a kid.
Bae has not been in Baltimore since she was a child, but she is fully prepared to relive her memories of seafood while she is in the city. “I want to eat enough that when I leave, I’m done with seafood for the next six months.”
Catch Eunice Bae as Cornelia in “Aubergine” at Everyman Theatre from March 14 to April 15. Tickets are on sale online with $10 dollar student ticket pricing available in person at the box office 30 minutes before the show begins.