Celine Song’s Endlings, which has its world premiere next month at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, is a strange, fantastical work with a lot on its mind. It centers on three aging haenyeoes—female divers from a centuries-old Korean tradition—on the rather desolate island of Man-Jae and on Ha Young, a Korean-Canadian playwright in Manhattan struggling to tell her story.
Dealing with issues of identity, creative authenticity and the lack of visibility for marginalized communities, it drew the attention of Jiehae Park, the Korean actor/playwright who plays Ha Young. I spoke to Park on the phone about the play and about the challenges of being an immigrant artist sharing a personal story. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve been working on this role since 2017; how much of you is there in this character?
The character, as written, is very much pure Celine, but since there is this Venn diagram of our experiences as Korean-born playwrights working in America, we share a lot. We understand each other because we’ve had to jump through the same hoops and have been asking many of the same questions. I can relate to it but it’s all Celine.
What has made you stick with the role?
The fact that the play touches on so many things that my peers and I are all wrestling with felt like it would be helpful for me to be asking these questions through her lens. As a writer, I tremendously admire the imagination and courage of the things she does in this play, which is wild. It just explodes a lot of ideas about what people think a play has to be, and that’s so exciting to be around.
One of the things that fascinated me about the play is the idea that, for marginalized people, you want to talk about your identity but, on the other hand, you kind of just want to be like everybody else.
I wrote a play that was very personal to me, and for me, it wasn’t until I saw how that was received that I realized this was going to be a whole thing. I had to deal with the reality that most American theater-going audiences are white and wealthy. It was well-received, but it wasn’t the audience I had written for. I had to deal with, “Oh right, I may have to explain things differently,” and, on another level, there’s a whole commodification of identity that happens since it’s unusual to see even two Asian plays in one theater.
How do you walk the line between speaking about who you are and, as you say, commodifying your identity?
I think the goal is to always speak truthfully but there has to be an awareness that you can’t be blind to the reality of who the audience you’re speaking to is. The goal is to not make any compromises, in terms of the authenticity of your message, but there’s also a recognition of the circumstances of being in a world that has power structures that are the way they are. You do feel a pressure to commodify your identity, and those negotiations can get very messy, but it’s a complicated conversation that is important to have.
Is it exciting to be in a play that, in a lot of ways, is about creating spaces for these stories to be told?
Absolutely. One of the things I admire about Celine’s writing is how bold she is with her honesty. She is saying things that will be spoken publicly, in front of many people, that are the kinds of things that playwrights would only talk about amongst themselves. It’s risky to make these bold claims about how you see the world and I admire her so much for it.
You have a speech in the play, in Korean, that is specified not to be understood by non-Korean speakers, insisting “You’re just supposed to listen and be patient.” What did you think when you first read that?
It’s awesome. I think the particular experience of getting some things, as opposed to everything, is a very familiar feeling to immigrants, especially if they’re not English speakers. Forcing people who aren’t used to having that experience is so illuminating and, on the flip side, for those who do speak Korean, there’s a wonderful feeling that they are inside of something, instead of outside.
Switching gears a bit, were you familiar with haenyeoes before working on the play?
I think most Korean people know of their existence but I don’t think they’re something people have devoted a lot of mental time to think about them. The world is big, so it’s kind of like how we all know cattle ranchers exist, but we don’t necessarily spend time thinking about them.
Do you think Song’s use of magical realism is a good approach to telling their story?
It’s wonderful every time the play opens up with flourishes of imagination. These women are struggling economically and they don’t glamorize it, they do this because they have to make a living. The combination of those realities with the moments of beauty and exceptional circumstance is such a powerful one.
ENDLINGS. 2.26 THROUGH 3.17 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER. 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG