Celine Song is a fine playwright and “Endlings” is a fine play. These facts are evident in that the play was developed and premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop before going on to productions at the prestigious American Repertory Theatre in Boston and now in Oakland in a collaboration between Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company and the Oakland Theater Project. This is the sort of pedigree that makes a theatre reviewer sit up and take notice.
“Endlings” is a complex play that attempts a difficult task: to interweave the stories of elderly Korean “haenyeo”—”sea-women”—who live on the remote Jeju Island and eke out a subsistence by free diving for seafood and pearls, and the playwright living in New York trying to remain true to her ancestral culture as a person of color ekeing out a living on that island of whiteness.
The first half of the play focuses on the three last surviving “haenyeo” as they go about their daily tasks and perform for the occasional group of tourists. They are interesting and charming and their stories of hardship and love for the sea are moving. Keiki Shiosato Carreiro, Mia Tagano, and Pauli N. Amornkul offer interesting performances as the elderly divers.
After the first act, the action moves to New York where playwright Ha Young (clearly a character based on Celine Song) is working on a play which seems to be the very play we have just been watching. She discusses her work with her white husband, who is unmoved by its content. She is faced with the challenge of being honest to herself in a world where all the plays are “white”—even the furniture is “white.” In a humorous scene, she and her husband attend a workshoip play in which actors actually articulate this by having “white conversation” about their “white lives,” etc. It is funny and makes the point well, that whiteness of the world in America is truly overwhelming for young artists of color.
In the end, the two worlds do manage to enter into some sort of communication and our heroine playwright moves towards a more coherent artistic vision.
All of this makes for interesting subject matter, and it is no surprise that Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company would be attracted to the play, or that Oakland Theater Project would want to colloborate.
The extent to which this production succeeds, however, is another matter. Although the subject intrigues, I found the action and dialogue to be often repetitive and the performances to be unnecessarily presentational, almost to the point of bludgeoning the audience with political points at the expense of telling the very human stories of the elderly sea women and the alienated young playwright.
The flaw may be in the play itself, but I suspect that this piece is not being well-served by the directorial approach which seems to be aggressively Brechtian and aiming for a continuous “alienation” effect—utilizing technique such as explanatory placards, breaking the fourth wall and extremely presentational acting to remind the audience of the intellectual points being made. The point of the alienation effect, in Brechtian theory, is that without such techniques an audience might be seduced by the emotional content of a play and miss the larger social implications of a story. So they need to be startled out of their emotional involvement to gain an objetive view.
But in order to achieve a true alienation effect, it is necessary that the audience first be emotionally seduced so that the alientation techqniues alienate them from their feelings of empathy. If this necessary first step of emotional engagement is short changed, then the alienation effect feels more like shrill propaganda than a wake up call from too much emotion.
In my opinion, that is what has happened with this production. I felt I would have preferred to be more deeply engaged with the story rather than being constantly pushed out of it by forced attempts at an alienation effect.
Not everyone will agree with me. Certainly, many audiences, especially those for whom these issues might be most salient, such as the fan base that follows Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, will like this production very much.
Whatever flaws this production may have, they certainly cannot be blamed on the design team whose work is fantastic. Karla Hargrave’s remarkable set convinces us that we are watching three women dive under water and swim to the bottom of the ocean. All the other design elements are equally astonishing and delightful.
“Endlings” plays in Oakland through May 1, 2022. For further information or to buy tickes, click here.
“Endlings” by Celine Song. Presented by Oakland Theater Project in association with Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. Director: May Liang. Scenic Designer: Karla Hargrave. Costume Designer: Maximillian Himpe. Lighting Designer: Sephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: Elton Bradman. Projectionss Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer:
Han Sol: Keiko Shimosato Carreiro. Go Min: Mia Tagano. Sook Ja: Pauli N. Amornkul. Ha Young: Joyce Domanico-Huh. White Husband: Adam KuveNiemann. White Stage Managers: Brendan HYungert. Lillith Era.