Celine Song didn’t always think she’d be a playwright. Born in Korea, she moved with her artist parents to Canada, where she resisted involvement in the arts. But in college, she penned plays on the side while studying psychology and, after a friend produced one of her projects, she decided to pursue her passion. Her personal journey flows into her latest work, Endlings, which is staged by the American Repertory Theater and follows a Korean-Canadian playwright living in Manhattan as well as the last three haenyeos—elderly female divers—on the small Korean island of Man-Jae. We chatted with Song while her play makes waves during its world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center through March 17.
Does your background in psychology impact your work as a playwright? Definitely. For a while, I was fully committed to becoming a psychologist. My entire undergrad degree is in psychology, and I was really convinced that I was going to grad school and then [would] become a psychologist. And I think that it does have so much to do with my work. I talk about it as kind of an addiction or obsession with people. I feel like I just really, really like people. Spending time with people, getting to know people—I think that is so helpful for a playwright.
What can you share about the plot of Endlings? This play is about three Korean elderly female divers in the southernmost part of Korea. They live by the sea and they’re taught by their mothers and grandmothers to dive into the ocean without any equipment and pull seafood out. … So it’s about the last three haenyeos left in the world. And it’s also very much about me, an immigrant. I was just thinking about how mobile I am as an immigrant and how my life is so wildly different than these haenyeos, even though if you ask me what my ethnicity is, what my culture is, I would have to include Korea. I identify as Korean-Canadian-American, but Korean. And so do the haenyeos. So the play really is about how alien the haenyeos feel to me even though they remind me of my grandmother and they’re Korean like me. It’s both about that difference and the commonality we have.
Did America’s political debate about immigration impact your writing? The thing is, plays get written for years, and I had started to write this play late 2015, so I remember when Donald Trump was elected and I was a part of the writer’s group at the Public Theater [in New York] at the time. I was sitting there with all these playwrights who were actually very shaken. … We were talking about how, “Does this mean that our work changes now that the world is so different, now that America is so different? Now that New York City is so different?” And I remember feeling—because I was working on Endlings at the time—I remember saying to the room, “Actually, in my case, I’m not going to change a single thing. I proud of the thing that I’m working on. And it feels important to keep working on it. I don’t think my work has to change because my work has always been about this.”
What do you hope audiences will take away from your play? One thing that I sincerely hope that the audience does take away from my play is that I think that life and existence and people are not as flat as we would like to sort of imagine. I think we should be allowed to exist with as many idiosyncrasies and complexities as we actually have. I think that my play has been a journey to not apologize for how complicated and idiosyncratic my identity is as an immigrant.
Anne O’Sullivan as Dr. Ruth
■ Let’s talk about sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, whose life story sparked the play Becoming Dr. Ruth. Before her career climax as the world’s most famous psychosexual therapist who dishes out frank advice, she fled Nazi Germany, was wounded while serving as a sniper in a Jewish paramilitary organization and worked at Planned Parenthood in 1960s Harlem. Our advice? Make a date of it when New Repertory Theatre stages the one-woman show from April 27 to May 19 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
■ Praise be to Margaret Atwood’s expanding The Handmaid’s Tale universe, which counts a 1990 film, Hulu’s harrowing TV series and a 2000 opera among the adaptations of the 1985 novel about a woman named Offred rallying against the religious totalitarian state of Gilead. The opera makes its New England debut as part of the Boston Lyric Opera’s season, running May 5-12 at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion—smack in the middle of the setting of Atwood’s tale.
■ Attention, Plastics: SpeakEasy Stage Company both celebrates and skewers the American clique-climbing movie genre with the New England premiere of Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play. Enroll yourself in an exclusive Ghanaian boarding school and watch the hive buzz with ambition and lies when transfer student Ericka flies in from Ohio and threatens to overthrow resident queen bee Paulina. Get schooled when the play runs May 3-25 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.
■ No diss to Odysseus, but Homer’s millennia-old epic about a Greek soldier journeying home after the Trojan War finds a needed refresh in black odyssey boston, a co-production by the Front Porch Arts Collective and Underground Railway Theatre, playing April 25-May 19 at Central Square Theater. On his odyssey back to his family after his deployment in Afghanistan, Gulf War veteran Ulysses Lincoln finds himself a pawn of trickster gods and unflinching fate in this fusion of African-American oral history and Greek mythology.
■ Running March 15-30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, Flat Earth Theatre blends myth, mysticism and reality in its fourth-wall busting production of Allison Gregory’s Not Medea, an unflinching deep dive into the stress of motherhood. Hoping to unwind with a night out, a frazzled mother instead finds an odd connection to the play she and the audience are there to see—Euripides’s Medea, about a woman who slays her children to enact revenge on her estranged husband.
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