For “Endlings,” Death Becomes Her

Presented by American Repertory Theatre
By Celine Song
Directed by Sammi Cannold

February 26 – March 17, 2019
ASL Interpreted performances: Wednesday, March 13 at 7:30PM and Sunday, March 17 at 2PM
Open Captioned performances: Thursday, March 14 at 7:30PM and Saturday, March 16 at 2PM
Audio Described performances: Friday, March 15 at 7:30PM and Saturday, March 16 at 2PM
Loeb Drama Center
Cambridge, MA
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Review by Diana Lu

(Cambridge, MA) Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon and everyone in the world knows his name. Young Jean Lee was the first Asian female playwright on Broadway, and that is all she’s known as: “Asian female playwright”. Even in headlines about her work, white newspapers didn’t bother to print her name. Most people don’t know her name, including Asian women outside of theater. Let’s face it. White people like white plays, and the occasional token, minstrel show.

 

White people like shows about Asian people’s suffering at the hands of communism. They like stories about North Korean cruelty that completely ignores the US-backed South Korean military dictatorships that oppressed democracy and killed thousands of student protestors. White people love Asian family tragedies, and hearing about Asian American kids’ problems with our “traditional Asian parents”, our backward Asian cultures. That way, they never have to reckon with how much their racism against us has fucked us over. And white people (er, white men) LOOOOOOVE to hear about Asian women’s victimhood, especially at the hands of Asian men, to validate their white savior complexes.

Miss Saigon. M. Butterfly. Joy Luck Club. This is the real estate that Asian women get to claim. Minstrel show island, a fucking barren rock cut off from the wealth and the wide world of Great White Storytelling. Orientalist water, orientalist wind, orientalist sun. Who the fuck would want to sell their skin to live here? Just to be remembered as Asian Woman no. 2? These are the issues that Celine Song wrestles with in writing Endlings, a meta-play about the playwright’s real-life struggle to conquer the theater world without compromising herself. In doing so, Song threads that needle to create the most honest depiction of humanity and the arts, life as I know it, that I’ve ever seen.

Act One opens outdoors on the island of Man-Jae, with luminous lighting and the sounds of the ocean. The three last haenyeo on earth, Han Sol (Wai Ching Ho), Go Min (Emily Koruda), and Sook Ja (Jo Yang), work and talk, wait and hope to die. As soon as their story begins, the fourth wall is broken by the narrator and “white stage managers”, as well as the haenyeo themselves, peeling back the curtain a bit, to reveal the boundaries and limits of performance.  In the first act, the seams of stageplay are returned to and tugged at over and over, until the haenyeo narrative is completely torn apart, giving way to a spotlight on playwright Ha Young (Jiehae Park).

Act Two feels like a David Lynch-esque freefall directly into Celine Song’s mind. Beginning on a scene based on a real-life conversation between herself (as Ha Young) and her white husband (also a playwright), (an actor wearing a sign that says “white husband (also a playwright)”, Song takes and us to a satirical “Great White Play”, which Ha Young interrupts with a call from her grandmother, which she answers in untranslated Hangul. The Haenyeo and her unfinished play are constantly on Ha Young’s mind, jutting into her life in Manhattan in a hilarious subway performance. The guilt of not having written eating away at her confidence like rats in her $3K a month apartment. Then the pains turns into a pearl as her total and unabashed ambition shining through in a radiant monologue that illuminates all of New York City.

I realized that when Song called the play unproducible, it wasn’t because four Asian women were difficult cast, or that it wouldn’t be possible to create a literal ocean onstage. What made it unproducible was this story, of Ha Young’s relentless, shameless, ravenous ambition, Celine’s unbridled and unadulterated humanity. I also wouldn’t have ever thought the white theater establishment, or anybody for that matter, would care about an Asian woman’s humanity enough to produce a play like this. I’ve never felt like my humanity was valued unless it was sliced up, picked apart and packaged into a neat little box for white consumption. Until now. And that what I love most about Endlings.

American Repertory Theater did a phenomenal job in every aspect of producing Endlings. Jason Sherwood’s stage picture was absolute fire, and Sammi Cannold’s direction built up a cast that gels like lifelong friends and a narrative that flows and shimmers like mermaids in the water. I also appreciated seeing Wai Ching Ho, Emily Koruda, and Jo Yang’s gorgeous faces gracing every bulletin board in Cambridge these last few weeks. I hope Celine eventually takes her three salty old bitches to Broadway and absolutely dominates the New York theater scene. Some references are so site specific that putting it on anywhere else doesn’t do the play justice. Celine Song may not be the first Asian woman playwright on Broadway, but she’ll be the motherfucking best, and everyone will know her by name.

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