Celine Song (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)
A few years ago I was rhapsodizing with a friend about how much I love powerful storytelling, the kind that takes you so fully into another reality. Was the topic W. G. Sebald, George R. R. Martin, Rachel Cusk? I can’t remember what launched me, but the response of my companion is still clear in my mind. She said it seemed odd to hear this from me, someone who has spent her life doggedly creating non-narrative art.
She was right about that. I began my artistic life with a decidedly non-representational orientation and have stayed within that domain. But does anything really exist without a story? Every creation carries with it a cocoon, seen or unseen, of language, meaning, context, implications. The human mind can and will identify threads of meaning no matter how ethereal or numinous the work becomes. It may be that it is only the Enlightened Ones who achieve that non-narrative state of being, often referred to as the Void.
Meanwhile at the other end of the storytelling spectrum there is a party going on. Everything is in play now: gender, race, cultural norms, generation, heritage, belief. Authentic has stepped ahead of the formulaic, vulnerable more valued than defended. The viewing lens can be so easily interchanged now. Black Panther is a film with an all African American cast, Phyllida Lloyd directed a trilogy of Shakespeare plays performed by only women, Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Hamilton is a genre-busting retelling of the American Revolution with no old white guys. These theatrical experiences take us somewhere new. In other genres, North American history is reconstructed with a painfully honest eye in Jill Lepore‘s extraordinary new book, These Truths. Maria Popova describes a highly personal journey into the history of ideas by favoring the overlooked, females and outsiders in her new book, Figuring. The paintings of Hilma af Klint, an unknown 20th century visionary, are now celebrated for being the very thing that locked her out of a career during her lifetime—not mainstream, not male and not aligned with the canonical bastions of 20th century art.
Celine Song is a 30 year old playwright who left Korea when she was 12. She has already assembled the gatekeeping markers for artistic talent: An MFA from Columbia University; residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Millay Colony; a member of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group.
But at some point that canonical path ran dry for her.
I wanted the world around me to forget that I was an Asian, because it hurt too much to be seen. It made me feel ugly, unloved, and powerless. So I aligned myself with whiteness and patriarchy, both as a person and as an artist. I wrote “white plays.”
She countered that disconnect in herself by writing Endlings, a play centered around haenyeos, elderly South Korean women who free dive for a living. This ancient practice faces extinction as no younger women are interested in this high risk and impractical form of sea harvesting.
As I wrote about these women, I realized that, for the first time, I didn’t care about how my play would be produced or what it would do for my career. Writing my first “Asian play,” all I cared about were the words that made me feel good when I put them on the page.
Artists reading those words will recognize the power of that moment. It is an essential quickening when everything shifts and you start on a path that is yours and yours alone. In my experience, that is the point at which your true work begins.
Endlings, currently being performed by American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Center in Cambridge, is full of unexpecteds. Working with director Sammi Cannold, only 25 years old, Song and her team have staged an experience that feels exceptional. The fresh is blended with old soul wisdom, the quirky and personal still speaks with an undeniable universality, and the experience is delivered up with an authenticity that is clear eyed and confident. There is a sense of authority and surefootedness in Endlings that is so surprising—and refreshing—from a writer barely out of her 20’s.
The first half of the play centers around three haenyeos, fishwives in the truest sense of the word. Framed with the overlay of an imagined television special attempting to exotify this ancient diving tradition, Song defies those “made for TV” voice over attempts to romanticize the real lives of these salty, crusty crones. They live as if they are the only three people left on earth (a bit of a Waiting for Godot vibe,) sharing opinions about child rearing, dead husbands, television, how hard their work actually is. There is nothing sacrosanct here, just three old women who could be on a park bench in the Bronx as easily as the remote island off the coast of South Korea.
They talk and they also dive. An enormous tank is located below them on stage. We see them—knives in hand as they search for the treasures they will bring to the surface—through a series of windows that open to this underwater world. (For ART subscribers, the set may remind you of the 2016 production of Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins written about here.)
The second act starts from a very different pivot point. The playwright and her “White Husband Also a Playwright”—we know this because he wears a sign saying so—are reading the first act of the play we just saw. (This play within the play and the bifurcation of narrative brought to mind last year’s stunning debut novel by Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry.) The haenyeos are gone but the themes continue: A Korean woman, living on an island (this time Manhattan,) doing work that is arduous, solo in nature, and difficult. Making art can feel like a deep and dangerous dive.
Cannold sees Act II as “a meta-container around the first half of the play, [which] starts to dissect what it means for [Song], as a Korean, to be writing about these women and what it means to do it in the American theatrical landscape, which has been very white.” The language in this act shifts from the everyday concerns of haenyeos struggling to survive in a harsh landscape to those of a young woman seeking to survive in a different kind of harsh. The character of the playwright (who has been given Song’s Korean name Ha Young) articulates her daily struggles. How to be an artist. How to find the space, time and support needed to write. How to connect with passion. How to live in New York City when artists have been priced out of any reasonable real estate footing. (Real estate, as metaphor and reality, is a laugh line leitmotif throughout the play.) But most poignantly, how does a young, gifted writer incorporate her Korean diasporic identity into the other parts of who she is?
This was a memorable night at the theater on so many levels. It is an ambitious undertaking without question, and there were times when the immensity of the vision exposed a few wobbly joints. (I asked myself how this play would be handled if Bunny Christie, the genius behind the brilliant design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, were to get her hands on it.) But those moments of slight rawness in execution were minor and did not pull from feasting on this singularly creative performance.
Endlings runs through March 17.