Post image for Artist, Immigrant: Henry Ong

(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)

Henry Ong cares very much about the subjects of his play and writes beautifully about tough topics: Cambodian holocaust survivors, Thai garment workers, torture survivors. When we worked on a show together in New York a couple of years ago, I found him to be so good humored and supportive that I forgot how stressful directing and producing can be.

What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
As a theater “junkie,” I am blessed to be able to see all kinds of theater, especially living in Los Angeles where there is such a diversity of offerings. When you have as many friends involved in making theater as I do, you’re bound to find all kinds of expression that run the gamut from mainstream to ethnic, immigrant, foreign, and gay and lesbian. Theater here has informed me as a person, and opened my eyes to different perspectives. In general, I prefer new works though the classics (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, etc.) provide a happy balance. I see about 120 to 130 plays a year, including musicals, plays, performance art here, and (when I’m in New York) Broadway and off-Broadway shows.

What do you miss about working in your homeland?
I found my theatrical calling in the U.S., so I had no exposure to working in the theater scene in Singapore prior to coming here. A couple of my plays have been produced there, but it’s not something I’ve actively pursued. Perhaps I should, as I would like my plays to be accessible to a Singapore audience.

How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
My work as an artist is informed by who I am as a person. As someone who is an “immigrant” (though I tend to think of myself more as an American than an immigrant), I am drawn to giving voice to those who are not normally represented in theatrical works. For instance, when I read about the terrible oppression of the 72 enslaved Thai garment workers, I was compelled to write the play, “Fabric.” I am surprised that such a modern-day tragedy that has all the dramatic elements has not been explored by American or immigrant playwrights. It is also what made me pen “Sweet Karma,” a play about the tragic life of the Cambodian refugee who escaped the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, gained stardom and an Oscar as the star of “The Killing Fields,” only to be fatally gunned down in the streets of Los Angeles a decade later. I’m currently working on a play about a rocket scientist, who despite making significant contributions to the Space program here in the U.S., was accused of being a Communist and deported back to China, an “enemy” that ironically benefitted from our short-sightedness. But, lest you think of me as delving solely in “immigrant” stories, I have also adapted a 19th century British novel by Anthony Trollope, in additional to a six-hour Chinese classic, “Dream of the Red Chamber.” And I wrote a play based on real-life stories of gay and lesbian teenagers in Los Angeles called “People Like Me.” In sort, I write what moves me. Therefore, although my “immigrant” sensibilities foster what I write, I try not to limit myself. A recent play of mine, “Seppuku,” deals with interracial themes, combined with Los Angeles history (well, it does have an “immigrant” angle in that the Japanese silent movie star, Sessue Hayakawa, is a character in the play).

How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
Writing about people outside the mainstream of society is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re writing about characters that most writers would not explore. On the other, these stories are more difficult to market. I’ve had my share of rejection of “Fabric,” for instance. Although it was produced in Singapore and England (in Surrey, of all places!), it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, that this American story was produced in the U.S., thanks, in part, to the fact that the Thai Community Development Center which championed the liberation of these modern-day slaves, co-sponsored the production in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the landmark case. “Sweet Karma,” which was further developed by Immigrant Theatre Project and saw a production at Queens Theatre in the Park, is yet to be produced in Los Angeles where the true events took place. Hmm.

What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
Keeping busy writing, looking for productions…anywhere, and to collaborate with anyone who will want to produce my work. I’ve also been conducting oral history workshops, the latest one being about survivors of torture. A presentation of their stories is planned for June. Would love to see “Rachel Ray” (my adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel) produced everywhere…I am such an Anthony Trollope fan. 2015 is the bicentennial of his birth. I’m in discussion with some Trollope Society members in England who are planning a commemoration of Trollope’s life; hopefully, my play will happen there.

Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?
I had never thought of playwriting until a friend asked me if I would take a class with him. The teacher, a butch woman who smoked incessantly in class, asked to see me and my friend during a break. There were about 30 students, but the teacher wanted to limit the class to about 15. She asked my friend (who is Japanese American) and I to drop the class because, as I recall, she said that she was concerned that we might not able to take her “brutal” comments since “Asians are very sensitive people.” Her words must have had an effect because only five persons remained in the class, but my friend and I were not among them. If this had happened today, I would have lodged a complaint against her for racism and insensitivity. How I have grown!

Anything else you want to add?
The life of an artist is a difficult one. You do not choose to be one. It chooses you. It is not for the weak, or for those who think the world owes you a living. You live it because you must. I recall, in the not too distant past, I told myself I would give up being a writer and that thought made me feel very liberated and happy. The next day, I took pen to paper, and there I was, a playwright again.

What is your residency/citizenship/visa status? How does it affect your life as an artist?
I am an American. Proudly so. I count the day I became American as one of the happiest in my life. I am finally able to define myself. Can you tell that I am a liberal? Ultra liberal. That is everything to me, and I think it shows up in my work. And my life, as an artist.

Henry Ong (playwright) is an internationally-produced playwright.  Credits include: Fabric (Company of Angels), Sweet Karma (Queen’s Theatre in the Park, New York), Rachel Ray, (Pacific Resident Theatre, the Co-Op), Madame Mao’s Memories (Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, et. al), People Like Me (Playwrights’ Arena) and Legend of the White Snake (Eagle Rock Center for the Arts).  He has conducted many oral history workshops in various communities (Pinoy Stories, Chinese American Stories, Korean American Stories, Thai American Stories, and Stories for the Blind).  He is a 13-time recipient of Department of Cultural Affairs Artist-in-Residence grants.  Ong is an active member of the Dramatist Guild, a member of the Los Angeles Stage Alliance and Playwrights Ink.
(Photo by Lorely Trinidad)

Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Member: Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She curates Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Her project East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, is a binational, Vietnamese/Czech/English theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese. She created Journey Theatre with survivors of war and torture. Directing venues: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, MESTC, Vineyard, Oddfellows Playhouse, Artheater/Köln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Teaches theatre at CUNY, community-based theatre at Yale, Immigrant Theatre at University of Chicago (her alma mater) and Prague Quadrennial, Brown, and NYU.