by Clinton Campbell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 5, 2019

A scene from "Endlings" at the American Repertory Theater through March 17.
A scene from "Endlings" at the American Repertory Theater through March 17.  

"Endlings," the world premiere play by Celine Song currently running at American Repertory Theater is probably one of the more unexpected (and satisfying) works they have presented in recent memory. It is at once expansive and political as well as intimate and personal and travels the full emotional landscape from tragedy to hilarity.

At first glance, Ms. Song's work is about South Korea's "haenyeos" — a matriarchal society of female free divers. These women have driven the ocean-based economy of the Jeju province since at least the 18th century. However, as economic and societal factors have changed, few are now drawn to the lifestyle and their culture is rapidly disappearing.

But "Endlings" is also a declaration of self.

Intermixed with the portraits of these fearless Korean women, Ms. Song has written a version of herself in to the script providing context and commentary about the play it has taken her so long to write.

Through this character, she is able to express her own hopes and fears as an Asian immigrant finding the courage to express her unique voice through the world of theater.

Ms. Song also creates a fascinating metaphor through casting. While the play is led by four female Asian actors, they are supported by white men. One portrays the playwright's white husband, while the others serve as the stage managers that are not only seen but visibly alter the set as necessary. It's a subtle reminder that for all the progress made in representation, white men still largely pull the strings.

The work also has some unique production challenges. In addition to the rarity of a production lead by four Asian women, a swim tank is also required. Yes, the "haenyeos" in this play actually dive and swim. There is even a sea turtle. And while this could come across as a gimmick, it is infinitely more moving than any video projection and adds a very real humanity. Set designer Jason Sherwood has outdone himself.

Additionally, Director Sammi Cannold's cast certainly deserves the buzz that they have generated. The three haenyeos seem to have merged into their own unique family unit Wai Ching Ho portrays the leader of the group, Han Sol — in her 90's and obsessed with television, she is old enough to not be flustered but young enough to show no signs of stopping. Emily Kuroda plays the ill-tempered Go Min — the stereotypical middle child. In her 80s, her first response is always violence. And finally, there is Jo Yang as Sook Ja, only in her 70s she is the baby of the group as well as the most naive.

But the real stand out is Jiehae Park as Ha Young, Ms. Song's alter ego. Her performance is so incredibly natural it is easy to forget we are watching a performance and not just someone talking about their work. She perfectly expresses the frustrations of a woman trying to convey her experiences without sacrificing the truth to make work that is palatable for white audiences.

"Endlings" is one of those works that must be seen to be fully understood. Ms. Song has discussed being stuck in a cycle of writing "white plays," let's hope that cycle has been broken for good and that we can expect more for her unique and touching voice.

"Endlings" continues through March 17 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Boston, MA. For more information, the American Repertory Theater website.