Dramaturg Jieun Lee on "BFE"
In BFE, Julia Cho gives us a bittersweet and dark view of modern American suburban life. There is something ominous in her play, a sense of the uncanny, a cloud of issues hovering over the characters and threatening to burst at any moment. Something is just not quite right in BFE—and in what “BFE” stands for—but it’s not just the looming danger of events occurring all over town.
The story focuses on Panny, a 14-year-old Korean American girl who considers her Asianness ugly. Panny’s family members include her beauty-obsessed mother, Isabel, and Panny’s lonely-heart uncle, Lefty. The other characters in the story consist of Panny’s accidentally dialed phone friend Hugo, her always happy pen-pal in Korea Hae-Yoon, her pretty friend Nancy, and Evvie an outgoing store clerk. There is also Jack, a pizza delivery boy, and General MacArthur (no spoiler alert here). A man, part of the subplot, rounds up the full cast of characters that revolve around the dysfunctional family of the three main figures. Isabel is agoraphobic and watches television all the time. Lefty, whose only pleasure is Dungeons and Dragons miniatures, has dutifully sacrificed his life to take care of his sister and niece but longs for more. At the center of the family, Panny directly expresses through monologues her isolation, loneliness, and unhappiness on her journey to self-awareness.
Family is a theme that can be found in Julia Cho’s other plays such as The Architecture of Loss (2003) and Durango (2006). These two works and BFE make up Cho’s trilogy of plays that are specifically set in the American Southwest. In 2016, Aubergine premiered on the West Coast and subsequently opened Off-Broadway. Aubergine tells the story of a Korean American family dealing with the deathwatch of a patriarch through the themes of family, food, memory, cultural identity, and mortality. Cho’s most recent play, Office Hour (2017), also deals with Asianness/Koreanness but through the exploration of a troubled Korean American student profiled as “a shooter.” For this piece, Cho stated she was influenced by the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting but looks at this subject matter in a non-sensationalized way.
In BFE, several of the themes that Cho explores throughout many of her works are intertwined: Koreanness, family obligations, the pressures of assimilation that can lead to isolation and a loss of identity, and the “otherness” of being viewed (and viewing oneself) as different. Cho is not one to shy away from difficult issues pertaining to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, intergenerational and intercultural conflicts, and in fact, her art of playwriting is precisely in bringing these issues to light. By doing so, Cho leads her audience to complex worlds where emotionally injured people confront each other and confront themselves, yet always try to find some type of reconciliation on their journey toward a sense of belonging that seems to constantly elude them. Cho stated: “I believe plays are journeys, and they should take you somewhere you’ve never been—whether it’s a new thought, a new place or a new way to look at something familiar.” UGA’s production of BFE will bring you to a place that is out of nowhere but find a new way for you to see something familiar.
 Sung Rno, “Julia Cho Desert Memories: Landscape-And a Sense of Place-Loom Large in the Work of a Rising Young Playwright,” American Theatre, April, 1, 2015,