A young Korean-Canadian playwright living in Manhattan announces, mournfully, that she once made a list of her favorite playwrights and they were all white men. Bummer. She goes on to single out Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett as major influences. Obviously, this young playwright stopped going to the theater sometime before she was born. In a way, I can identify. I write biographies but rarely read modern biographies. Then again, I’d never say that my favorite biographers were Henry Adams and Samuel Johnson.
The sad Albee/Beckett comment is central to Celine Song’s new play, “Endlings,” which opened Monday at the New York Theatre Workshop after its world premiere last year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ha Young (Jiehae Park), the playwright within Song’s play, is in the process of writing a play about the haenyeo, or “sea women,” who are fisher-divers in the Korean coastal province of Jeju. They’ve been fishing in this manner for centuries, but due to industrialization, few of them are left to carry on the tradition. The word endling means “last known individual of a species,” and according to Song’s Ha Young, only three haenyeo remain.
These sea women are played by Wai Ching Ho, Emily Kuroda and Jo Yang, and they are a salty lot — the youngest is in her 70s — and it’s a comic delight to see them complain about their rough life and wish they were living in Manhattan, albeit a fantasy Manhattan. At night, they take refuge in OD’ing on American television. Nonetheless, each day these three women squeeze into wet suits, climb a ladder over a cliff, put on googles and then dive into the sea. Jason Sherwood’s scenic design for “Endlings” provides real splashing water whenever the women take the plunge, and soon, we are treated to sliding panels that open to reveal these senior citizens under the water. Later, a huge turtle (Mark Mauriello in an extravagant costume by Linda Cho) joins them.
Watching these moments of “Endlings,” I was reminded of the play “Seascape.” If ever Albee had written for children’s theater, it might have been something like Song’s play. This isn’t a backhanded compliment. Who wouldn’t want to see a children’s play written by Albee? With help from her design team, director Sammi Cannold pulls out all the stops to keep our attention riveted. In addition to the Esther Williams effects, there’s a miniature Manhattan skyline for the New York segments of “Endlings,” as well as a play-within-a-play-within-a-play that defines the theater of the silly.
Song is at her sharpest with the three divers. The dialogue among them is, at turns, funny and melancholic and noble in a way that signifies the end of any way of life. However, I fear that saying something nice about the haenyeo characters puts me squarely within the white establishment. How different these women are from Ha Young, who interrupts the divers’ story to tell us about her immigrant’s life in Manhattan, which isn’t a TV dream. It includes living with a White Husband (Miles G. Jackson) in an expensive studio apartment overrun with mice. Suddenly, life on Jeju doesn’t look so bad.
Jackson wears a big sign across his chest that reads “White Husband (also a playwright).” Ha Young realizes that White Husband is being patronizingly upbeat about her play because, after all, a play about the haenyeo is something he never could have written, as opposed to the other “white plays” she has written that he could have, although presumably not as well.
On a level with White Husband and This Critic are all the foundations and grant givers who find the haenyeo fascinating, exotic, worthy of support. And so, Ha Young never stops receiving grant money to complete her opus. This is a problem?
Yes, it is. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that nonprofit theaters in New York City have, for seasons now, turned immigrants into the stage’s most frequently visited subject. Ha Young is writing against the tide of “whiteness” that prevents her from finishing the haenyeo play. (Or is she simply addicted to all that grant money?) This is where the play-within-the-play-within-the-play comes in. It features four white male actors (Matt DaSilva, Keith Michael Pinault, Andy Talen and Mauriello) performing a play about male whiteness in all its infinite uniformity and repetition. Their vocabulary includes several variations on the word “white,” and each man is credited as the White Stage Manager, although Really Bad White Male Stage Actor would be more apt. (These guys also spray the divers’ hair and move props between scenes.) Ha Young and White Husband watch this white male spectacle from the comfort of the NYTW auditorium, and she brings the play to an end when her cellphone goes off and answers it mid-performance.
“Endlings” is a work of great self-deprecation. Song’s old divers are as arresting as her young playwright is silly (when she’s supposed to be irreverent).