The Women Behind 'Endlings’

Emily Kuroda and Wai Ching Ho in Endlings. Photo:  GretjenHelene.com

Emily Kuroda and Wai Ching Ho in Endlings.Photo: GretjenHelene.com

  • Alex Chester

I love theatre. I love theatre that takes you someplace you’ve never been, introduces you to new people, different concepts, and makes you see things in a new light. Celine Song’s play Endlings explores the Haenyeos of South Korea and her own personal identity. Intriguing, right?

As a mixed Asian-American identifying women I am always on the lookout for playwrights who don’t minimize the female Asian/AsAm/Immigrant experience. I am tired of Asian women always being portrayed as a stereotype, you know exactly what I mean. Literary content aside, Endlings is #ChangingTheStage. Ms. Song is helping usher in an era where the Asian character is no longer seen as an mockery or a one dimensional representation. Celine Song is part of a growing number of young Asian playwrights cultivating change in the entertainment industry.  Credit should also be given to theatre companies like A.R.T and visionary directors such as Sammi Cannold (director of Endlings), who are major allies in this new age of dramaturgy.

As Ms. Cannold knows, I am a huge fan of hers. She is an up and coming director and I expect we will see amazing things from her! I was thrilled when she reached out to me about this show and I immediately asked to interview her, the cast (Wai Ching Ho, Jo Yang, and Emily Kuroda) and of course Ms. Song.

The fact that there are so many obstacles in the way for AsAm actors, your show has crushed several. Ageism and whitewashing. What were the casting and creative process like for Endlings?

Celine Song - The casting and creative process were dreamy. I am in love with my team. Many people told me how difficult it would be to cast this play given how specific the casting requirements are, but I have found that it was so much easier than everyone feared and I ended up with my absolute dream cast.

Sammi Cannold - Both were quite amazing. In terms of casting, Celine, our casting director Kate, A.R.T.'s executive producer Diane, and I all felt so fortunate to get to meet and become acquainted with the work of so many extraordinary women. Celine likes to say that the lives of elderly API actors in many ways parallel the lives of the divers they portray in the sense that both share a proclivity for survival in ruthless conditions. When we started casting the show, we spent days watching the reels of elderly API actors and it was immediately clear that many of the roles that have been available for these women for decades have--not always, but most often--been quite demeaning. And yet, they're still acting, they still love the theater, and they still believe in a better future — just as despite harrowing work underwater for decades, the Haenyeo just keep diving -- they still love the ocean and they want their work to make it possible for the next generation to thrive. So being able to discuss and explore those parallels and so many other topics around the conversations related to whitewashing and ageism with the five incredible API women in our company was quite tremendous.

How did you prepare for the undertaking of playing Haenyeos? Have you ever had any diving experience prior to this show?

Emily Kuroda - I saw a ton of YouTube videos to prep for the part.  I don't swim, so our first Asst. Director, Brian Ge, taught me.  We trained in the Harvard pool twice a week.  With Brian's patience and genius, not only did he teach me to swim, but he taught me to whistle! How do you train to be an old person?  Be OLD!  I think the best training is life, with shifting of priorities over time which I think is reflected in this piece.  It is amazing that Celine, so young, captured that.

Wai Ching Ho  - I learned to swim as a child, but had never learned how to dive. Back in September  of 2018,  after I learned I was cast as Han Sol,  Sammi and Celine arranged a pool session and had asked a diving coach to give us a lesson. It was funded by A.R.T. and had proved to be extremely helpful. I overcame my fear of diving and was able to do it since.

Jo Yang  - I was introduced to these fascinating women having watched a David Chang (Restaurateur, Momofuku) expose during the Pyeongchang 2016 Winter Olympics.  He was reporting on the food scene in South Korea and it was apropos to the venue, that the amazing athleticism of the Haenyeo was featured too.  Three years later, I’m portraying one of them! 

The script, of course, informs you and in it, Celine specifically listed video links to study the Haenyeos.   Intrinsically, I was able to connect w/Sook Ja on an emotional level. I also had the wonderful opportunity of a week long workshop, reading Sook Ja at the O’Neill Fest in July 2018, which provided the perfect setting and included an official rehearsal on the beach.  On my own, I’d climb the rocks and practice my monologues facing the vast sea, taking in the salt water, salt wind, salt sun. I imagined my husband in Ee uh doh beyond the horizon.

A few months after that, a pool session was held, basically so that we could learn techniques of breath holding and reaching the bottom of the pool.  I had no diving experience prior to that.

Shortly thereafter, Sammi and Diane, our producer, visited Jeju island and further sent us photos and videos of their experience and queries.  In fact, Sammi asked if we had specific questions to ask of the Haenyeos and came back with the answers!  As well, I read “The Pearl” and “The White Chrysanthemum” as fictional enhancements. So I felt armed with enough muscle memory and information when I began rehearsal at A.R.T. 

What sort of challenges arose during the rehearsal process and how did you overcome them?

Emily Kuroda - I must commend the patience of Sammi and Celine for putting up with my weaknesses.  I came to them unable to swim, arthritis everywhere, a bad knee, scoliosis, a very real fear of heights (the stage is long,  narrow and high) but willing to try my best to overcome those challenges.  Aside from the obvious physical challenges, was the challenge of infusing my character with truth.  To honestly invest raw love, fear and acceptance of her daily struggles into each performance is the biggest challenge of all --   to honor this beautiful play, and the important message it carries.

Wai Ching Ho - During rehearsal I think the hardest part was handling all the props while we  carried on the dialogues. Luckily we had an incredible crew who provided everything we needed to get us accustomed  to handling all the props, as well as  mock- ups  of diving suits which we could get in and out of on stage without losing our timing.

Jo Yang - We were challenged as soon as we got on our feet in that it’s a prop heavy show.  We literally couldn’t have pages in hand and deal with objects at the same time.  The solution was to get off book instantaneously. 

The water component required physicality beyond the typical rehearsal process and of course presented its own set of issues.  We had to adjust to buoyancy between our rehearsal and actual performance wetsuits, test out how many weights to add to our belts, deal with water seepage in the masks and plainly, maintain our energy levels in and out of the water.  For the latter, I frequented yoga classes and took power naps!

As a woman director that is not Korean or of Asian descent, how were you able to authentically direct this show without putting a “white” lens on the subject matter? What steps did you take to maintain the literature's cultural integrity?

Sammi - This question was front of mind for me for the entirety of the almost two years that Celine and I have been working on the piece together. First and foremost, I made sure that I consistently communicated my understanding of that question to Celine -- that we were able to have really frank ongoing conversations about whether or not a white director could/should bring this piece to life even as I was working on it and that the jury was always out. Second, I saw it as my duty to do more prep and research on this piece than I've ever done -- I traveled to Korea to learn as much about haenyeo as I possibly could and because the second act of the play is very much about Celine's life, she and I had countless dinner dates for over a year wherein I would just ask her questions and listen. Research will never make me less white, nor did I intend for it to, but I felt that if I could make unique contributions via that research in the room, I would have ground on which to stand whilst always prioritizing listening to my collaborators of color above all. I am deeply grateful to Celine and to our colleagues of color in the room—with special gratitude to my amazing assistant directors Brian Ge and Rebecca Aparicio—for their generosity in that regard.

Why did you decide to write Endlings? What sort of audience did you have in mind when creating this play? Also, what makes this play different compared to what is usually portrayed of the Haenyeos? What’s next for Endlings?

Celine Song - Writing Endlings wasn't really a decision -- one day I just realized that I was writing it, and my journey was about simply accepting that. My intended audience is myself first and foremost, then my family, then everyone else. In this depiction of Haenyeos, I did my best to not erase what the Haenyeos themselves say about their own work, which isn't always clean, positive, and UNESCO-approved. I have no idea what's next for Endlings.

You have till March 17th to catch this groundbreaking play. For more info please A.C.T’s website: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/shows-events/endlings/