Celine Song had nothing to lose.
Two years ago, she was a member of the Emerging Writers Group, a program at New York’s Public Theater that supports up-and-coming playwrights. But at 28, she was done with theater. Her plays, she says, were “too weird for Midtown and not weird enough for Downtown.”
Still, she had to produce a play for the Writers Group. That was part of the deal. “I thought it was the last play I was ever going to write, so I wrote a crazy play,” she says. “I wrote it for my spirit.” “Endlings” is set on two distinctly different islands, with some scenes underwater. It calls for three elderly Korean (or Asian) actresses who can swim — and a sea turtle. “I thought there was no way it would ever be done,” Song says. “It’s unproducible.”
But that “unproducible” play is making its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge next week, with previews beginning Tuesday. It was fast-tracked after a workshop at the Public in 2017. An agent read the play and connected Song with director Sammi Cannold, the 24-year-old wunderkind who earned her master’s from Harvard in 2016 and has worked at ART. The two met for pizza in Manhattan. “I didn’t really believe this would happen,” Song says. “ART is this big beautiful theater that does Broadway shows. They do ‘Jagged Little Pill.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, they’re really going to do my silly little play.’ ”
Song is no longer contemplating a different career. Instead, she can be found at rehearsals at Harvard University’s Blodgett Pool, where she readily jumps into the shallow end with three actresses in wetsuits rehearsing scenes. She expected the producers would suggest doing faux underwater scenes with swaths of undulating blue cloth, but ART is diving in with the real thing onstage.
The play showcases the haenyeo, the legendary female divers who harvest fish from the rough seas off the South Korean province of Jeju. Tough and tenacious, these aquatic women were once the backbone of their matriarchal society, but now they are on the brink of extinction. The haenyeo population has dwindled to about 4,000 today, and the divers themselves urge their daughters to pursue other careers.
Song, who was born in Seoul and immigrated first to Canada and then to the United States as a teenager, was fascinated with this dying culture. These women take great pride in their work, even if it is no longer sustainable. Song can relate: Playwriting feeds her soul, but she didn’t think she could make a living at it.
The first act of “Endlings” unfolds on the isolated island of Man-Jae, where three haenyeos go about their work. They’re irreverent. They’re bored. One longs for “a little yappity-yap-yap.” They may be weathered, but their talk is as forceful and salty as the sea.
It took Song a year and a half to write the first act, but then she came to a standstill. She didn’t know how to proceed, so she asked her husband, the playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, to read it. They had an intense conversation about why she was writing a play about these elderly women, what she hoped to accomplish, and her resistance to the very act of writing an “authentic” play about her Korean identity. She then stayed up all night and fired off the second act, finishing the last page at 6 a.m.
The play takes a dramatic turn westward, from the island of Man-Jae to the isle of Manhattan, where a playwright wrestles with how to remain true to herself in the American theater. The fourth wall comes tumbling down over and over again, as Ha Young (Song’s Korean name) questions work by other Asian-American writers and declares, “I don’t want to sell my skin for theater.” Song says she made a conscious decision to be brutally honest, noting that when she is on panel discussions, she is polite and says what people expect her to say. In private — or off-panel — she opens up about the issues she faces as an Asian-American playwright. “I decided I was going to be totally honest and totally off-panel,’’ she says.
Jiehae Park plays Ha Young, and as a playwright herself, she has a unique understanding of her character’s dilemma. Park began writing during breaks in her acting career and, like Song, she did not expect to see her work produced. “This is weirdly parallel to my life,” she says. (Her play “peerless” was produced by Barrington Stage Company in 2016 and Company One Theatre in 2017.) “The stuff she puts out there is the stuff playwrights only talk about with their intimates,’’ she says. “I’ve never seen this before.”
Wai Ching Ho plays the oldest haenyeo, Han Sol. She immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 21 and has played her share of long-suffering mothers over the years. Now 75, she plays the evil Madame Gao in Netflix’s Marvel universe series. “I am the badass lady,” she says. “That is very dissimilar from the haenyeos who are salt of the earth, but it is similar in the sense that Madame Gao doesn’t take no for an answer and is very independent. I can really identify with these characters. They are strong and earthy with a great sense of humor.”
For Ho, the play illuminates what it means to be an immigrant. “You come into this play, and it is like a form of immigration,” she says. “You are moving to a different country, a different world. You suddenly experience something unexpected.”
Song says the entire play is about immigration, about how it feels to inhabit several identities at the same time. Director Cannold wanted to understand that experience in reverse, so she and ART executive producer Diane Borger traveled to South Korea to meet the haenyeos and watch them work. They invited Song to go along, but she has too much of an emotional attachment to South Korea to travel there as a tourist. “I go there to see my grandmother and my aunt, and it would be very wrong for me to go there to see the haenyeos,” Song says.
But the director’s trip informs the rehearsals. “When someone has a question, I am not the only person being asked,’’ Song says. “It is not just me who has skin in the game.”
And Song has strong feelings about authenticity. In the script, she writes, “Under no circumstances will any of these four roles be played by someone who is not Asian.
“No exceptions.” She feels differently, however, about her director. “It is more important that I have an amazing collaboration with someone who really gets my play than for it to be about identity,’’ she says. And she felt an immediate connection with Cannold, starting with that first piece of pizza. “We talk to each other every night. I can call her at 3 a.m.’’
In the beginning, she had nothing to lose. And now, she says, she has everything to gain. “This production is saving my career. It is the reason I am still in the game.”
Produced by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Feb. 26 to March 17. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.