The Oakland Theater Project’s West Coast premiere of playwright Celine Song’s “Endlings” continues the troupe’s progressive track record. Presented in association with Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company and directed by May Liang, that company’s artistic director, the production reaches deep into history, grasps an ancient narrative, then thrusts a well-crafted story into the bright glare of contemporary culture and sensibilities.
Opening Friday, “Endlings” (oaklandtheaterproject.org/endlings) centers on three elderly Korean women known as haenyeo, or “sea women,” who despite their advanced age continue to practice the dying tradition of free diving into the ocean to harvest seafood. As the play’s title suggests, their lives and practices on a remote Korean island as marine “dinosaurs” head inevitably for erasure and extinction and are highlighted and sharpened by the parallel and contrasting story of 20-something Ha Young, a Manhattan-based Korean-Canadian playwright.
Montclair-based Joyce Domanico-Huh plays the role of the young playwright. The character in many ways is a stand-in for the real life Song, a second-generation Korean-Canadian immigrant whose works often focus on Asian erasure, ageism, homogeneity and struggles familiar to second- and third-generation immigrants or less visible people in Western theater and film.
“I was born and raised in San Jose by my parents, who immigrated from South Korea in the early 1980s,” says Domanico-Huh. “They moved for upward mobility. My mother worked as a postal worker for USPS for about 30 years; my dad was a general contractor.”
Domanico-Huh says that due to immigration laws, only one family member was allowed to move to the United States every two years, so her maternal family moving to America took nearly 10 years. Her paternal family remains mostly in Korea. She experiences imposter syndrome (a feeling of undeserved recognition), much like the character she plays and says, “It’s being a ‘third-culture’ Korean immigrant: I feel I’m not totally accepted in Korea and I’m not totally accepted in America.”
In her childhood home, the family spoke Korean. Entering preschool, teachers mistook her limited English verbal skills for a learning disability. She learned the alphabet through a speech therapist; a misguided step that took an interesting trajectory when Domanico-Huh later went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in speech-language pathology from the University of the Pacific, a masters degree from Columbia University and to practice currently as a licensed speech-language pathologist.
Captivated by theater during elementary school while playing the role of a a boy who wants a doll, she appeared onstage in plays throughout her academic years. Acknowledging the overlap between scientific and artistic approaches to communication found in her two chosen professions, she says, “Theater feels necessary. It’s the expression of the human condition and to be able to investigate and then portray that within my physical instrument, it just feels alive.”
She mentions gyopo, a term used to describe children of Korean descent not born in the homeland. To her, the word means she, like Ha Young, is constantly questioning her identity.
“Koreans based in Korea don’t have that lens. They aren’t constantly aware of ‘White gaze.’ That really speaks to me and how I’ve navigated my entire life. In my field, speech therapists are 93% white. Now, I’m showing up in an ensemble that’s marginalized in the theater community. As a therapist and because one of my brothers is autistic, I’m hyper-aware of marginalizations. My observer role has been amplified.”
Onstage, she aims for “performance as truth” and not being shrouded or erased by the audience she calls “witnesses” and whom she says will take away sense memories of the action and words spoken.
“The last line of the play is, ‘Let me just exist.’ I reach that line of how heartbreaking it is to be close to Korean history, to tell third-culture guilt on a visceral level, the story of what I and my Asian friends carry: the burden of making money, being successful as defined by the White gaze.”
Liang, while directing the play, also experiences life/art intersectionality.
“I find that (Ha Young’s) struggles to succeed and questioning the cost of that success is universal, especially in the times we live in now,” Liang says. “She constantly refers to real estate: the need for better real estate, what her mother had to do in order to get better real estate, the need and (desire) to take up space.
“Being an immigrant herself and having witnessed everything her mother had to give up, she has an immense amount of pressure to turn those sacrifices into success. This is something I feel deeply as an immigrant myself, having come to the United States with my family when I was six years old. For me, the universal can be found in the specific, and this play is a perfect example.”
Liang says other universal themes told most compellingly by the three elderly haenyeo characters are resilience in the face of death, the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood and sheer, exuberant joy.
“Though the western perspective may find the portrayal of the haenyeo as something new, the women in this play and in my family are what is familiar to myself and many other Asian families. In rehearsals, the actors and I are constantly bringing up how this character is like our grandmother or how someone’s mother would say or act in the same way — it’s hilarious. Joy is actually a fundamental experience of the play even through all the hardships.”
Liang says she is “forever grateful” to playwright Song for placing elderly Asian women center-stage and a script that jumps from realism to abstraction and allows “limitless possibilities” for creative exploration. Domanico-Huh says she continues to investigate her character and question a Western gaze that infantilizes older Asian women as “cute,” when in her world they are “funny, tired, caring, loyal, angry, loving and more.”
She says the rigorous process of memorizing her opening lines — a formidable, dense and poetic 15-minute monologue — is moving beyond technical delivery to something that feels natural. If allowed questions in a post-show audience talkback, she says she’d like to ask, “Are you closer to understanding the immigrant experience? Do you understand the magnitude of consequences that happen intergenerationally because a couple of White guys drew a line through a country shaped like a rabbit? I immigrated and told the story: do you know what matters? Do you understand how we intersect?”
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected]