The captivating play Endlings, by Celine Song, actually contains two disparate leitmotifs. Each theme absorbing in itself, the 90-minute presentation explores thought-provoking questions and has fine acting and directing. It is definitely worth seeing.
Endlings, Oakland Theater Project, The Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, through May 1
Presented in association with Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company and directed by May Liang (that company’s artistic director), Endlings first introduces the audience to three elderly women. They are haenyeos, or “sea women,” who free-dive for seafood off the coast of South Korea. Living on the remote island of Man-Jae, they dive into waters as deep as 65 feet to the ocean floor where they catch abalone and other fresh seafood, which they sell to eke out a bare living. Equipped with only a lead-weighted vest and goggles, these women make dozens of dives each day while holding their breath for more than two minutes at a time. This generation of haenyeos are the last practitioners of an ancient tradition.
After exploring these women’s lonely lives, the scene switches to the tiny Manhattan studio apartment of Ha Young (Joyce Domanico-Huh); she is a stand-in for the playwright. While struggling to write a play (likely the play we are watching), this modern young Korean-Canadian woman tells her white husband that she was “bribed by white people’s attention” to write about the haenyeos. She grapples with how much of her work should reflect her Korean ancestry instead of the authors she loves, Shakespeare, Albee and Brecht.
As we watch the three formidable haenyeos on the cleverly designed stage set (Karla Hargrave), it’s immediately clear that they hate their work. Still, they are compelled to keep diving — for money and out of habit and ritual. Han Sol (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) is a cheerful 90-year-old diver whose only pleasure is watching television. She repeatedly cries out, “Hollywood Forever.” Sook Ja (Pauli N. Amornkul) attempts glamour by applying lipstick before each dive. The 80s-something feisty aquanaut Go Min (Mia Tagano) tells us, “When [my children] were young they would ask me to teach them how to dive into the ocean with a rusty knife … and I would smack them on the head.”
Like all the young people, Go Min’s children have left the island long ago. The plight of the trio of haenyeos is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s characters. They pass endless identical days and wait for a fishing boat that never arrives.
In New York, stand-in author Ha Young tells us the “story of my immigration” in a breathless yet cheery voice. In her bare apartment, we meet her white husband (Adam KuveNiemann), who wears a sign identifying him as her “WHITE HUSBAND.” She explains why she wrote the play about the haenyeos: “I was Machiavellian. I was cynical. I decided to write this play because I was trapped.” She feels simultaneously tempted and pressured by the white gaze. “Some of them gave me money so that I could keep working on it,” she says. In a funny skit, white male actors act out a performance of a “white play” at a “white theatre,” saying things like “Oh my white god hear my white prayer.”
I laughed a lot at Celine Song’s sobering humor. But the play struggled at times to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Still, watching Song seek to come to terms with the tensions of her hybrid ethnicity made for engaging theater. I’d love to see what she does next.
Endlings is playing 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through May 1 at The Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in Oakland. Tickets are $10-$52. All attendees must present proof of vaccination or negative test and wear a mask. There will be a livestream performance at 7:30 p.m. on April 23. Tickets are available online or by calling 510-646-1126.