Henry Ong, a fixture of the Los Angeles theater community for more than 35 years, died Saturday, September 29th after a long battle with cancer.
Ong was the quintessential Los Angeles playwright: a first-generation Asian-American, he was interested in the exploring the immigrant experience, and conducted writing/oral history workshops in many LA communities as diverse as the city itself.
Ong grew up in Singapore and later attended graduate school in the U.S., graduating with a master’s degree in journalism. Post-graduation, he moved to Los Angeles, where he began to pursue his career as a playwright. He was a member of Interact Theatre Company and Company of Angels. In 2014 he was awarded the Lee Melville Award from Playwrights Arena for outstanding contribution to theatre in Los Angeles.
An internationally-produced playwright, Ong’s works span an eclectic mix, from plays inspired by true events to biographical drama and adaptations of classic novels. Credits include: Madame Mao’s Memories, Sweet Karma, Fabric, The Legend of the White Snake, and People Like Me, which won him a Drama-Logue Award for Excellence in Writing in 1998. A number of his plays have been produced nationally, including New York and San Diego (at the Old Globe Theatre); as well as internationally in London, Edinburgh and Singapore. Other works include: The Masseur, Ascent, and theatrical adaptations of the Anthony Trollope novels Rachel Ray, and Nina Balatka, all in various stages of development.
Ong was a 16-time recipient of Artist-in-Residence grants from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. He collaborated with Marlton School, Los Angeles’ only day school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, on staging a series of Asian folktales for youth. In addition, he was one of the founding members of the non-profit Artists Against Oppression (AAO), whose primary mission is to create and support artistic endeavors that elevate the lives of oppressed or disenfranchised communities.
In 2017, Ong fulfilled a life-long dream to have his six-hour adaptation of the Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber staged, co-directing the play at the Edward Vincent Jr Park in Inglewood. In June his play, The Blade of Jealousy, an adaptation of the Spanish Renaissance Playwright Tirso de Molina’s La Celosa De Sí Misma, had its world premiere at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.
As a champion of LA theater, Ong was an avid theater-goer, attending 150 performances annually. He served for many seasons as an active voter for The Ovation Awards, the Southern California award for excellence in theater.
Dubbed “the shyest man in theater” by theater website Stage Raw, Henry famously avoided the spotlight and cameras unless he was on the other side of the lens. Everyone in the theater was “a famous person” in his world. No audience member or performer escaped his attention. Ong felt, he said in a 2016 Stage Raw interview, that “everybody deserves to be seen, and wants to be seen.”
Henry is survived by his husband Matthew Black, mother Geok Lian Yan, and sisters Noi Giddings and Stella Ong.