Edinburgh Fringe 2023
In this semi-autobiographical one-woman show, performer and writer Zoë Kim is Mother and Daughter navigating their many differences in how they are able to love each other.
Zoë Kim comes out as the Narrator onto a nearly empty stage, save for a square drawn in chalk on the floor. She asks individual members of the audience, “Did you eat? What did you have? Do you want dessert?” This, she explains, can mean many different things in South Korea. It can mean, “How are you?”, or “I’m worried about you”, or “I love you”. The Narrator describes the differences in her lived experience as a Korean and an American: how she was a child in a Korea, but an adult in America. How she cries in Korean, but laughs in American. How to her Korean friends, she is too American, but to Americans, she will never be American enough. Many of these stories come as conversations she is having with her Mother, who believes whatever racism the Daughter character is experiencing must be something Daughter has drawn on herself. “Why would I want this for myself?” She asks her Mother in frustration.
In the first half of ‘Did You Eat?’, we are introduced to Daughter’s family, most prominently Mother. Kim transforms her body, her face, and her voice to become Mother, a character who is at times endearing and at others completely infuriating. It is through Mother that we learn about the Commandments of Love, a set of rules passed down through generations to help mothers love their children how they should be loved. When we meet a pregnant Mother, she is glowing with excitement, and talking about how excited she is to love the son that grows inside her. Unfortunately, that son ends up being Daughter, and this failure to produce a son sets in motion the course of Daughter’s life.
Love languages provide the scaffolding of this piece, and give us valuable shorthand insight into each character. Mother’s love language to her husband would have been to provide a son, and this failure informs the pressure she puts on Daughter to have her own family. Daughter’s love language towards her grandmother is to tell stories that make her laugh, which is the impetus for Daughter to become a storyteller. Kim posits these particular ways of loving can be inherited down the generations, or can be found in small moments of interaction, and they can sometimes even be detrimental to the person on the receiving end. Watching Mother, Daughter, and their family members succeed and fail with their own ways of loving each other provides the beating heart of this work, and makes the final act that much more devastating.
Kim’s Narrator persona is matter-of-fact and engaging, so much so that when the gut-punch at the beginning of the third act comes, the audience seemed like it didn’t quite believe they heard what she said. The visceral reaction was palpable, but Kim remained unflinching. Throughout the play, she drew the audience in, maintaining eye contact with us as though both inviting us in and daring us not to follow her. Even at the most uncomfortable, soul-wrenching moments, even when it felt only right to look away, it was impossible to do so. We had been so pulled in to Mother and Daughter’s relationship, had fallen so in love with the characters, that now we had to stand by them and see it through to the bitter end. To feel such intense investment in only an hour of theatre is truly an achievement. This is also due to the powerful and daring direction of Chris Yejin, who has turned a set of a chalk square on the ground (and sometimes not even that) into entire worlds. The combined talents of Kim and Yejin are a force to be reckoned with, and it is hard not to feel while watching that we are seeing the beginnings of a potentially legendary partnership.
I saw ‘Did You Eat’ nearly three days ago, and it has sat with me ever since. I have been struck by how familiar and yet how singular it is. It is a story about mothers and daughters and generational differences, but it is one specifically of that relationship in Korean culture. It is a story of discovering self expression, but one specifically about loving who you are when you are born a disappointment in a family who expected more of you before you even existed. It is a story of love, but more specifically how love can build and destroy when it has opposing views of freedom to your own. It is a universal tale, but it is most importantly Zoë Kim’s. Don’t miss it.