“Endlings” Unnerves with Extinction Nightmares—at Oakland Theater Project
Celine Song Animates Ancient Korea & Modern Manhattan
by Evelyn Arevalo
“Endlings” seduces us with alluring images, but its short run time of 70 minutes leaves us wanting more.
Playwright Celine Song juxtaposes the harsh lives of haenyeos or “sea women” on the remote Korean island of Jeju with an alienated writer’s life in her costly Manhattan apartment. Song toys with the two stories: a traditional drama about forgotten women’s lives and an examination of her own literary motivations—a bold pairing.
Song creates a Korean American writer to explore the process of putting inexplicable emotions into words. Her main character Ha Young (Joyce Domanico-Huh) struggles to tell an immigrant story that leaves me feeling unhinged. She channels the trauma of immigrant experience in America.
Writer Ha Young straddles two worlds: her Korean origins and U.S. assimilation. Like the sea-women, she’s an “endling,” possibly the last of her kind, waiting for extinction.
Surprisingly unsettling,“Endlings” revives immigrant fears and losses, dissecting opposing concepts of stagnation and immigration. She stirs up my mother’s fraught escape from Sinaloa, Mexico. These generational feelings remain and resonate regardless of origin.
For the first 20 minutes, “Endlings” transports us to Jeju Island, where we meet the last three aging haenyeos, sea women who make their living by diving deep into the ocean without any breathing gear. They make desperate, long dives to harvest octopus, shellfish, and seaweed or a meager living.
But the “profession” has slowly died out because of industrialized fishing. It’s a merciless job: no holidays, marauding sharks, and the chance of drowning always looming. Only three divers remain: the youngest, Sook Ja (Pauli N. Amorkul), wears a black wet-suit and vibrant red lipstick. Her long dives remind us that women risk their lives every day.
The sharpest of the three, Go Min (Mia Tagano) captures our attention as she recounts how she beat her children so they would escape her legacy. Loneliness is written in the lines of her face. I can feel my throat tighten as she longs for a “real” life off the island.
The eldest, almost a century old, Han Sol (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) looks frail and tiny under her wet-suit. Yet, she smiles and screams, “Television!” as her solution to all problems—more a cheeky child than an old grandma.
The three women forge a sisterhood, cussing their deceased husbands, ranting about sex and children. Their friendship helps them survive the loneliness.
Abruptly, we are thrust into the noisy streets of New York, where budding playwright Ha Young writes about white people. Her immersion in white culture leads to attending writing workshops with her White Husband (Adam KuveNiemann). These are bizarre moments where we all feel out of place.
Suddenly, a white couple (Brendan Yungert and Lilith Era) appear, talking about white problems and white love, while sitting on a white couch. This surreal and funny scene makes us conscious of how movies and books are fashioned for the “majority” audience. Until recently, all our idols have been White.
The two worlds of traditional sea women and alienated writer do not quite fit together. Maybe that’s her point. “Endlings” forces our own stories to the surface, making us consider our origins and our destinations. Well worth the journey.
“Endlings” by Celine Song, directed by May Liang, by Oakland Theater Project, with Ferocious Lotus, at FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland 94612. Info: OaklandTheaterProject.org – to May 1, 2022.
Cast: Keiko Carreiro, Mia Tagano, Pauli N. Amornkul, Joyce Domanico-Huh, and Adam KuveNiemann.
Banner photo: Mia Tagano, Pauli N. Amornkul, and Keiko Shimosato. Photos: David Flores II