In ‘Endlings,’ playwright puts herself in spotlight

Emily Kuroda, Wai Ching Ho, and Jo Yang in” Endlings.” Photo:

CAMBRIDGE –As a Korean-Canadian playwright – twice an immigrant – Celine Song felt a special urge to write a play abut her identity.

She emigrated from Seoul to Toronto when she was 12 and from Toronto to New York City when she was 20. In program notes for the world premiere of her new play, “Endlings,” at the American Repertory Theater, she said she grew up insecure about her Asian heritage. “So I aligned myself with whiteness and patriarchy, both as a person and as an artist. I wrote ‘white plays,’” she said.

So “Endlings” became her chance to break out of that mold.

Endlings, we are told in a projection, are defined as the last of their species. And indeed, in this production, they are the last three of their kind – haenyeos, or sea women – still plying their trade, on the island of Man-Jae.

Even at their advanced ages they don diving suits each day and dive almost continuously into the churning waters.

They are, at times, profane and profound. They are 90-something Han Sol (Wai Ching Ho), who finds refuge in TV and believes “Hollywood rules”; octogenarian Go Min (Emily Kuroda), a widow from an unhappy marriage, determined that anyone and everyone she knows not follow in her footsteps; and  the youngster, seventy-something Soo Ja (Jo Yang), a constant complainer who, according to the other women “always stays down too long” when she dives and scares them.

The trio spend their time above water dishing and kvetching about each other’s children, their late husbands, how lousy the work they’ve been doing for many decades, and their love of TV.

But their banter masks the risks they take when they dive 40 or 50 feet below the surface to forage for seaweed or other sea creatures that can be sold to passing fishing boats.

In one poignant scene, they are posing for the cameras, having become a tourist attraction, performing on command much like a trained seal.

Director Sammi Cannold and the designers at the ART are up to the many challenges “Endlings” posed for them: Playwright Song didn’t believe the play could actually be produced on stage.

Set designer Jason Sherwood devised a set that allows the women to plunge downwards into a 40-foot-long water tank as panels open up to show them swimming underwater in hundreds of cubic meters of water.

There were other complicated add-ons as part of the deal: The creation of original music to convey underwater drama, the design of wet suits that the actresses could wear comfortably, lighting the water, even realizing the author’s stage direction for three talking clams. And there were logistical challenges: Scheduling rehearsals in the Harvard University pool and keeping the wet actresses from slipping on stage.

Act I of “Endlings” is engaging and funny, othen sad as the women perform their daily rituals, awash in loneliness, their profession dying alongside them.

In Act II of “Endlings,” Song has fashioned a parallel story that moves the action to her New York City.

It becomes all about a late-20s Korean-Canadian playwright named Ha Young (Jiehae Park), which just happens to be Song’s Korean name. Ha Young has a white husband (Miles G. Jackson) who’s also a playwright. We know this because he wears a placard around his neck that reads “WHITE HUSBAND,” subtitled “who’s also a playwright.” Cute … I guess.

The couple discusses the feelings that drove Song to write “Endlings,” and the cultural pressures she felt that were also part of her decision.

Later, the fourth wall will be dissembled during a scene that has Ha Young and her husband traversing through the Loeb Center audience on the way to attending a play where the white characters obsess about their whiteness, a spot-on satirical look at just the kind of work that Ha Young/Song had been producing until then.

Ironically, in many ways it conjures up another work by a playwright Ha Young’s not fond of: Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men,” the first play by a female Asian-American playwright to be performed on Broadway.

The three haenyeos from Act I also appear briefly.

Still, it is too cute by half, and our focus is almost completely diverted and shifted from the harrowing story of the haenyeos to Song and her identity struggle.

It takes over the narrative, so that the story of the haenyeos becomes a footnote and tends to disappear in our rear-view mirror, which is the largest fault of the piece. You might ask how serious Song was in writing about the women in the first place.

Song’s talent is apparent and it is a heartening development that the number of Asian-American playwrights whose works are produced continues to grow.

The depiction of stories in recent years by Cambodian-American, Chinese-American and Korean-American playwrights on local stages are also drawing theater patrons eager to see actors like themselves portraying characters and stories they can identify with, and “Endlings” continues that positive momentum.

The American Repertory Theater production of “Endlings.” Written by Celine Song. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Scenic design by Jason Sherwood. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design by Elisheeba Ittoop. At the Loeb Drama Center through March 17.

Miles G. Jackson and Jiehae Park in Endlings. Photo: