The Rip Post  Interview:   Henry Ong, playwright    


     henrypic2.jpg (3781 bytes) Henry Ong fits into Los Angeles about as well as growing old gracefully. Which is to say, how does a person as honest, modest---as practically courtly---as Ong, become a successful playwright? Isn't pushandshove the lifeblood of showbiz? You know, that sort of Mr. Producer, here I am jazz? Perhaps Ong's innate decency and forthrightness have been his greatest cache, so novel is a lack of guile in this cutthroat town. But then, his ability has a hell of a lot to do with things, too. Ong is the author of the well-known "Madame Mao's Memories," a one-woman production based on the life of Mao Tse-Tung's widow, performed on major stages in Los Angeles, London, Singapore, San Diego (at the Old Globe) and many other cities.
            He was also moved to write "Fabric," based on the true story of incarceration and enslavement of Thai garment workers in Southern California; "Sweet Karma," based on the life of the murdered Oscar-winning actor and Cambodia "Killing Fields" survivor, Dr. Haing S. Ngor; and "People Like Me," about gay and lesbian teenagers in Los Angeles. He is a six-time recipient of grants from the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs, a member of the Dramatist Guild, the Los Angeles Stage Alliance and the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, and Literary Manager and an Artistic Associate of Playwrights' Arena.
           His latest work is in some ways his most remarkable. It's a Christmas play, of all things, written for and acted entirely by deaf students at Marlton School, Los Angeles's only school for the deaf. A parable about greed and temptation, "The Old Lady Who Popped Out of the Sidewalk and Became A Christmas Tree" also features actors doing the spoken "translation" for hearing audiences. It will be performed Thursday, Dec. 11 and Friday, Dec. 12 at Marlton, 4000, Santo Tomas Dr., L.A.(Tickets for the show are $5 for 9-year olds and older and $3 for 3 to 8 year olds. For more information, please call (323) 296-7680.)

       Mr. Ong, who is currently seeking to produce his six-hour(!) adaptation of the epic Chinese novel, "Dream of the Red Chamber," discussed his new play, his life as a playwright, and the state of theater---and Asian theater---in Los Angeles from his home in Silver Lake.

RENSE: How did you come to write "The Old Lady Who Popped Out of the Sidewalk and Became a Christmas Tree"? How did you come to produce it for deaf students? Was it written specifically for them?

HENRY ONG: Let me start from the beginning.

RENSE: Always a good idea!

ONG:  Last year, I contacted Marlton School, L.A's only day school for the deaf, after I learned that the school was interested in producing an Asian play. In talking to the school's then principal, Cecilia Perea, I discovered that the school was anxious to bring balance to the drama program. It had done Hispanic and African American plays, but not Asian. Ms. Perea and her drama teacher, Wanda La Coure (who is deaf) felt that since the school had an eight percent Asian student population, they really wanted to include an Asian play in its drama programming. The prospect of working with a whole new community really appealed to me, so I agreed to work with the school. As it happened, I had already developed a couple of plays for youth that were adapted from Asian folktales.

Last summer, the school produced one of these folktales---"Golden Flower Princess," a Thai folktale about a princess who had flowers fall from her mouth every time she spoke. The collaboration proved joyous, thrilling and exciting, and I wanted to continue working with the school. I therefore applied for a grant from Cultural Affairs. In discussing the selection of a play this time, Wanda asked it I had a Christmas play in my repertoire. I decided to write an original play inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez' lyrical story. "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." In a sense, yes, I did write the play specifically for the deaf students.However, I hope other schools and theaters would consider producing it too."

RENSE: Will hearing audiences be able to follow the play?

ONG: Absolutely. One of the joys of this collaboration is to be able to introduce my theater friends to this community as participants in the process. While the deaf students perform in ASL (American Sign Language), a group of actors will read the lines offstage, so that hearing audiences can follow the storyline.

RENSE: Funny, so it's the reverse of what you often encounter in "hearing" theater, where you have a person signing for the deaf audience. Tell me about working with deaf students. You've been doing this for sometime now. How difficult was it for you to adjust to their world?

ONG: Adjusting? I'm learning ASL now, but communication is bit difficult since I don't know American Sign Language that well yet. However, the students are very eager and that makes it so much easier. Also, the school supplies me with an interpreter-Levyette Harper, and I'm grateful for that. . .The school produced "Golden Flower Princess" in May and I started work with the students and staff as a consultant sometime in February or March. Wanda, the deaf teacher, asked if I could help with costumes. Happily, my friend, Shirley Wineman, was pleased to be involved. She'd designed costumes for me for a previous project. I also thought it would be a good idea to include Thai dance and martial arts, and asked my actress friend Chuti Tiu to choreograph a simple Thai dance and martial art routines for the students to learn. Oh, yes, I did recruit my actor friends to supply the "voices"-a hearing subtitle, if you will.

RENSE: Are there things about the play that are especially appropriate for deaf students?

ONG: It's interesting that in a deaf performance, the "words" are not as important. ASL ,being such a conceptual language, makes it all the more important for me to "paint pictures" rather than be tied to language. There is an innate theatricality to signing as a means of communication; I hope that the play complements that. In every day communication, hearing people tend not to be very expressive. But in the deaf world, facial expressions, body language play a big part in communicating feelings. Still, I'm surprised at how well some of the "spoken" ideas translate into ASL. For example, there is a character in the play-that of a reporter-who speaks backwards. I wondered, Is it possible to sign backwards? Apparently it is!

RENSE: Reporters often speak backwards. They learned it from politicians. Tell me about some of the travails of the production---the triumphant moments, the hard stuff, and the funny stuff.

ONG: Hmmmm. It seems so corny to say this, but this experience is such a spiritual growth for me as an artist. As someone who has relied so much on the spoken word all my life, it's a humbling experience when you can't use "words" to express a thought. Like anyone learning a foreign language, I've had my share of bloopers when communicating. Example: the time I told the class that the interpreter had gone "to make love" when what I wanted to say was she went to get coffee. Imagine my embarrassment.

RENSE: Given the worship of Starbucks, the distinction is increasingly fine, I suspect.

ONG: Oh, I should mention that the inclusion of Thai dance to the performance of "Golden Flower Princess" gave me enormous satisfaction---to see the faces of the students light up when they perform the dance to music they can't hear! That, to me, is simply so precious. I understand the students also performed the dance on International Day. It's good to see skills you impart to them being used outside the drama class!

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Two scenes from "Golden Flower Princess," in which deaf students at Marlton School "sign" their parts.
The students will soon perform Ong's "The Old Woman Who Popped Out of a Sidewalk And Became a Christmas Tree."

RENSE: I notice that you are also conducting workshops in acting, lighting, set and costume design. I thought you were just a writer, Henry! How did you come to do this sort of thing?

ONG: I conduct these workshops every other Friday on my days off. I recruit friends who are knowledgeable in these areas to help out. We plan out a simple curriculum, so that the students can get a taste of actually participating in all aspects of theater production, not just acting. My friend, Liz Sadoff, a fabulous artist, helped me with the set design workshop. Shirley Wineman, who has tons of costumes and is a skilled designer and seamstress, especially in Asian clothes…she helped me conduct the workshop on costumes. And Art McDermott, an actor friend who is fluent in ASL will teach improv exercises in ASL and teach acting techniques. Oh, Joycelyne Lew, actor and make-up and hair consultant, will teach the students all about make up and hair.

RENSE:  I see the play is described as a "message play." What is the message?

ONG: Doesn't that sound dreadful? Who wants to hear a "message"? But there is a message. The play is about greed. The play is about a very poor man who encounters an old lady who pops out of the sidewalk. He discovers she has magical powers---should he use her to amass wealth? Is it exploitation, or opportunity?

RENSE: Lovely premise. A valuable question to raise in this era when absolutely everything is exploited for money, without conscience. . .

ONG: Yes, I hope that this will stimulate thought about "balance"--while it's nice to be financially stable, we must also remember that money is not everything in life.

RENSE: In L.A., every second person calls himself or herself a writer, if not an actor or screenwriter. You are a rare item in that you are a genuinely successful playwright. You not only work at your craft intensely, but you have had many plays performed with success in LA. Europe, and Asia. How did you get started writing plays? Was it a childhood aspiration?

ONG: I worry that I might be that second person you refer to. But thank you for calling me a successful playwright. Success is relative. What is success? Who's to say that the person who calls himself or herself a writer is not actually a writer?

RENSE: I am! In L.A., if you sit at home and type on a keyboard, you automatically add "writer" to your business card. I have seen many a card that says "actor/singer/director/writer." I kid you not. You know, I plant and water the flowers outside, but I'm not a gardener. . .

ONG: Well, he or she could be happy just writing for himself or herself. That could be considered a success, no?

RENSE: No! Oh, I suppose, in an idealistic sense. . .

ONG: Some would say you can't call yourself a playwright unless you've been produced on Broadway, or at least in New York. Or, unless you make a living out of writing, it's only an avocation.

RENSE: Yes, I would say that last statement about sums it up. . .but continue. How did you start out?

ONG: Writing was definitely a childhood aspiration, albeit one that was crushed very quickly. I remember saying to my mother that I wanted to be a writer, when I was seven. To my horror and surprise, she burst into tears! I guess she wanted me to be a doctor. For many years, I suppressed the need to write, and it wasn't till well after graduating with a degree in biology, that I decided to put pen to paper, and that was the start of my writing career-if you can call it that.

RENSE: You have a degree in biology? Well, that would support what I told a journalism class at CSU Fullerton once: major in something other than journalism, so as to gain some actual knowledge. You learn writing by doing, not very much by studying in a classroom. Today, you are a six-time Cultural Affairs grant recipient. How have you managed this, and what were your other grants for?
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My dream project is to see the theatrical realization of "Dream of the Red Chamber," all six hours of it. In 2000, I staged a reading of my adaptation in Central Library, commissioned by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Now, if only someone would do the damn thing!
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ONG: It's always difficult for an artist to work in a vacuum, so it was fortuitous that I discovered Cultural Affairs. As an artist-in-the-community, I've always gravitated to community-related themes. Much of my focus centered on newsworthy happenings like the Thai garment workers slavery case. I remember being shocked to learn about modern-day slavery right in our backyard, and I approached the Thai Community Development Center which had access to the workers with the idea of writing a play ("Fabric") based on that situation. It wasn't until I obtained a grant from Cultural Affairs that I was able to pursue the project.

A brief summary: In addition to "Fabric," which required that I work with the Thai community to research the play, I have written "Sweet Karma," a play based on the life of Oscar-winning actor, Haing S. Ngor ("The Killing Fields")---this time my research introduced me to the Cambodian community. "People Like Me" was written based on workshops I conducted with gay and lesbian teenagers in Los Angeles. Another grant was for conducting a youth drama workshop that resulted in the performance of "The Fire Boy," a Japanese folktale. Finally, many years ago, Cultural Affairs supported the staging of my "Madame Mao's Memories" at Occidental College for the benefit of underserved youth who seldom get a chance to attend theater.

RENSE: Comment about the state of theater in Los Angeles, and how it has changed for better or worse over the years?

ONG: People say that theater is dying…but as long as there are people who wish to express themselves, there will be theater. While it's still the cheapest way to produce one's work, ironically it is expensive to see a play. Musicals are even more costly. Who can afford to see "The Producers" at $100 a ticket? Even small theaters charge around $20 at least. Compare this to a movie ticket, and is it a wonder why people flock to the big screen as opposed to experimental theater?

I'm noticing a proliferation of multicultural plays, and that is heartening for me. I've always gravitated to small theaters because that's where you discover the experimental work. I'm constantly amazed at how much theater we have in Los Angeles---this film town spawns so many plays! I recently saw a wonderful play about the life of Alfred Kinsey. And a play called "The Shore"-I admired it very much-the innovative structure was simply wonderful.

RENSE:  Comment about the state of Asian-American theater in Los Angeles, specifically. It seems that the stereotype is plays with titles like "Hot Dogs and Rice." To a certain extent, that's understandable, given the cross-cultural nature of the subject matter, but do you find that hackneyed or confining? I notice that you have never written that type of play.

ONG: Gosh, Asian-American theater! You're right, although I write Asian-American plays, I tend not to write what you call "hot dogs and rice" plays. Not that I don't want to, I just don't know how. Perhaps because my experiences have been that of a first-generation Asian-American, I write about immigrants or about people from Asia. Nevertheless, I find that labeling or restricting oneself to a particular genre is somewhat confining. I think that it is natural that Asian-American writers would write from their life experiences, and therefore we gravitate to topics that are a confluence of East and West. I believe there is a place for all kinds of plays; we just need to write about what moves us, and sometimes what moves us could very well be the "hot dogs and rice" kind of plays.

RENSE:  Yeah, but there comes a time when enough hot dogs and rice is enough. Fried Chicken and Chopsticks. . .Chow Mein and Ketchup---I mean, I get the point! Henry, who are your favorite playwrights, writers and why?

ONG: Without question, Tennessee Williams. I admire his dedication to his craft, and even when in an inebriated state (EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS MEANS "SNOCKERED")  he always found time to write. But mostly, I admire the quality of his writing, and his creation of memorable characters, particularly dominant but deceptively frail women-I find that fascinating. Recently, I discovered the works of Nilo Cruz, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of "Anna in the Tropics." The lyrical quality of his work is enticing. I love "Two Sisters and A Piano." It almost made me cry. When I read or see works by writers I admire, I'm filled with inspiration-and despair…will I ever be able to write like that! Of Asian American playwrights, I like Philip Kan Gotanda-a particular favorite is his play, "The Wash."

RENSE: What are you working on next, and what are your dream projects?

ONG: I'm working on trying to get "Sweet Karma" produced. Writing-wise, I'm working on a couple of plays that I think will take a while to complete. My dream project is to see the theatrical realization of "Dream of the Red Chamber," all six hours of it. In 2000, I staged a reading of my adaptation in Central Library, commissioned by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Now, if only someone would do the damn thing! I'm open to re-writing it, but only if there is a commitment to get it done. I spent six weeks writing the whole play---it was one of the happiest times I had writing! For those who are not familiar with the novel, "Dream of the Red Chamber" is the famous Chinese classic by T'sao-Hsueh-ch'in. It revolves around two main characters, the effete Pao-yu and his paramour, Black Jade. This is epic in scope---30 major and 400 minor characters; the story interweaves realism with the supernatural. My adaptation requires 20 actors to play some 70 characters. "Dream" was banned by Madame Mao at the height of her power---yet she and Chairman Mao were known to have loved the book!

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Henry (center) takes a bow.


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