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The New (Real) L.A. Stories : Han Ong’s plays aim beyond the we-are-downtrodden agenda of many minority artists to chart the complexities of life in the city

<i> Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

When Han Ong picked up his phone messages one day this fall, he found a startling basso profundo amid the sundry friends and business missives. “Mr. Ong,” the reverberant voice intoned, “I have read your script. . . . " The caller then went on to praise the young playwright in terms so effusive that the artist still demurs when asked about the incident.

The man on the other end of the line, it turns out, was none other than the American Repertory Theater’s Robert Brustein, one of the most famous names of the American stage. Ong was so shocked he didn’t even save the message.

Barely older than playwright Georg Buchner was when he died, Ong is rather suddenly, if undeniably, one of the most sought-after playwright-performers in the country, his work coveted by the most prestigious theaters on both coasts. A surprisingly articulate and sophisticated man for his 24 years, he’s also humble. Throughout the course of an interview, he offers erudite answers, yet persists in punctuating his responses with “Does that make sense?”

This week alone Ong’s work will grace the stages of three of the East Coast’s best theaters. He’s having a workshop production of “The L.A. Plays” at Boston’s American Repertory Theater, a reading of “Widescreen Version of the World” at Manhattan’s Circle Rep, and he’ll make his second consecutive appearance at the Public Theater’s “New Voices” festival.

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Ong has also just completed a commissioned script for the Mark Taper Forum. The Public Theater has given him the go-ahead for an adaptation of Jacob Lenz’s “The Tutor,” and a full 1993 production of “The L.A. Plays” is also set for American Rep, although the official announcement won’t be made until January. Pending engagements include other commissions, workshop productions and full stagings. And next year, Viking-Penguin will publish an excerpt from Ong’s unfinished novel in an anthology edited by Jessica Hagedorn.

Familiar to Los Angeles audiences from his solo performances at Highways and elsewhere, from his entries in the Taper’s New Works festivals and for a memorable “Woyzeck” adaptation for the Actor’s Gang, Ong has also had two San Francisco productions in the past year. But it’s the East Coast affairs that signal the breakthrough.

Known for his Expressionistic rhythms and imagery and a painterly use of language, Ong works from a palette of serious issues and dire lives, although he’s far from humorless. He frequently focuses on issues of racial and gender identity, albeit in eloquently lyrical rather than didactic ways.

Ong intends, quite simply, to expand the range of onstage humanity to include non-WASP Americans in all their true complexity. “Usually if a black or Asian character is onstage, the agenda of the play is to illustrate within two hours that they have been the recipients of vast amounts of oppression,” says Ong. “It’s the ‘Merchant of Venice’ school of writing: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ ”

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That, says Ong, is not nearly enough. “This humanist agenda is laudable, but it is politically first-rung. We ought to have evolved further. The fact that we need to restate every year that black people are human too is a sorry state of affairs.

“Knowing the humanist agenda that the past generation of playwrights has accomplished and knowing the satiation point, I want to move on to the next level,” says Ong. “I am the beneficiary of that legacy. But I do not want to talk about concentration camps unless I can bring something else into the discussion. I’m interested in recontextualizing things and I am against the easy codification of race.”

Yet, committed as Ong may be, the force of his arguments derives in part from his stylistic talents. “Han writes with a Beckett-like economy and a poetic vision,” says Steve Maler, a director in Harvard/ART’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training who will stage this week’s workshop production. “That vision stays connected to peoples lives, yet it’s not a documentary. It’s just shards of a life.”

Salesman: What do you want? Want. Need. Afford. Can I help you? Will you be helped? Or are you just browsing? Looking. With no intent to find. No desire to claim. A man on the periphery. Is that what you are?

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Rudy: What language is that?

Salesman: Where’ve you been? It’s been the language for years. Fast English. Everything is fast now. Faster. The better to disorient foreigners. Send them back to their native speeds. Is that what you are? A foreigner?

--from “Reasons to Live. Reason to Live. Half. No Reason.”

Ong’s characters are the disenfranchised. His universe is the low-rent world of back-door L.A., the same seedy byways and dingy apartments that have surfaced in works as various as Nathanael West’s “Day of the Locust” and the plays of John Steppling.

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“It’s a story about broken idealism, the search for the gold rush all over again and the tangible fallout that results,” says Maler of Ong’s L.A. “It’s a product of the Hollywood dream factory. People come with expectations that can’t possibly be met.”

“I talk about people whose status in America has thus far been tangential at best,” says Ong. “In a discussion about the well-being of the country, they are only the appendix: ethnics both racial and sexual, the lower class.”

“It’s a spare, tough world that takes conventional morality, turns it on its head, and suggests alternative moral configurations that people right now perceive as unappetizingly ‘Other,’ ” says the Taper’s Robert Egan. “He talks about race in aggressive and poignant ways, but he also presents views of sexuality and certain political viewpoints that are outside the dominant morality.”

Even though they may live in its tacky shadow, Ong’s characters often have ostensibly nothing to do with Tinseltown. In “The L.A. Plays,” first seen two years ago at the Taper’s New Works Festival, the central character is a young, Asian-American male prostitute who likely walks Hollywood’s boulevards. “Making him a male prostitute creates subtextual political messages: Giving sex back to Asian males and not making them be the good sons,” says Ong, who wants to rend stereotypes along with expectations.

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“Asians are acculturated such that when a writer starts writing about Asians, he learns from his culture that what he should do is paint the good portrait,” he says. “I don’t want to be straitjacketed by a positivist attitude. I want to complexify the issue of race by giving my characters various facets of gender and occupation that we’ve never seen onstage before now.”

In “Reasons to Live . . . ,” the principal character, Rudy, is also a young Asian man. And in Ong’s solo work, “Symposium,” the writer plays a version of himself, as he attacks the use of multiculturalism as a marketing strategy from the point of view of an artist on the receiving end of exploitative attention.

These young Asian male characters remain as evidence of what first drew Ong to the theater: a need to write roles for himself. The fiction is not, however, autobiographical.

Born to and raised by Chinese parents in Manila, Ong is the second child in a family of five. He immigrated to Los Angeles with his family in 1984 at age 16 and took up his drama interest in high school. “Now it’s called cross-cultural casting,” says Ong, recalling the dilemmas he faced in school acting classes. “But I thought the physical skin details of the roles were so specifically not me. That’s the genesis of my interest in dramatic writing.”

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The dearth of suitable roles for the young performer, though, was by no means the worst aspect of his new circumstances. “It was horrible, as if adolescence wasn’t bad enough,” Ong says of his early days in this country. “Nothing in the atmosphere of the city and, correlatively, in the country, made me feel as if this was my place.”

Role models were particularly lacking. “Mass media did nothing to ease my situation,” he says. “The images of Asians in the media made me feel that the cut of the pie that was due me was small. At that age, one is more self-conscious. One wants to stake a claim to a certain kind of dynamism or heroism that simply is not validated by the mass media.”

Although the family settled in Koreatown, the schools in the immediate vicinity were so overcrowded that Ong ended up being bused to Grant High, a predominantly white school in the San Fernando Valley.

“It was a wonderful thing to have had happen because the school in the area was thick with gangs,” says Ong. “What we lost by contact with different Third World ethnicities, we got back by survival. I don’t think I would have survived in that kind of atmosphere of failure and hopelessness that’s in those schools.”

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Nor was Ong the only such putative outsider, given that there was a substantial number of other nonwhite students bused in. “I didn’t instantly, automatically become ‘The Other,’ ” he says.

Still, Ong’s tenure at Grant was brief. After two years, he chose to take the equivalency exam. “High school was horrible,” he recalls. “I had gone to a private Catholic school in the Philippines and it was tough, but I didn’t realize how wonderful it was until I came to the States and had to go through the public education system.”

Ong’s dissatisfaction with the education system was exacerbated when they refused his transfer credits. “They wanted me to take two more years of English, when, in point of fact, my English was much better than the teachers’,” he says. “It was ludicrous.”

Nothing if not precocious, Ong arrived and departed high school already bent on his writerly vocation. He bypassed college because he decided to live on his own and needed, therefore, to do temp clerical work to pay his bills. He also put in a stint as an assistant at the Taper, where he did “a lot of filing for the literary department” and met, among others, George C. Wolfe, who would later book him for the Public’s New Voices Festival.

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Although Ong began seriously sending scripts around about three years ago, it’s only in the past two years that he’s really been able to devote considerably more time to writing, and only since last December that he’s actually been able to live off his craft.

Which doesn’t mean Ong is rolling in it. “I do live humbly,” he admits. “I don’t own a car, so I take public transportation and I live in this dumpy little place. At this point, I’m still willing to make those concessions.”

His real calling, he implies, may not even be theater. Ong began his first novel at age 18 and, although he has yet to complete it, it is clearly a passion. “I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but I stuck with theater because the length of time one devotes to a novel is far greater than what one devotes to a play. I can finish a play in two weeks.”

That speed is born of necessity. “It’s characteristic of my generation that I have a short attention span,” says Ong. “I have to finish something quickly or my enthusiasm dissipates. I’d like to be more disciplined, to go through 10 rewrites if that’s what’s needed. I’d like to leave with an enviable body of work.”

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With the kind of reticence one often associates with writers--and a soft-spoken yet direct conversational manner--it can be a jolt to catch Ong onstage. Yet he transforms when he mounts the boards.

“The night belonged to Ong,” wrote Ray Loynd in The Times of a 1991 solo outing. “Ong’s an excellent writer, and his monologue, shimmering in its delivery, was bedazzling as he used the Surrealist painter Magritte, likening the painter’s indistinguishable businessmen in bowlers to his own ‘living billboard of discontent.’ ”

Earlier this month, Karen Fricker’s review in The Times of Ong’s “Cornerstone Geography” at Highways cited his “caustic wit, acute perceptions and assured onstage presence” as he portrayed a Vietnamese-American hustler, a Mexican-American youth and an African-American journalist named Sam who rails against post-riot “healing and lollipop liberalism.”

“Ong combines sinuous movement with a mastery of language,” she wrote.

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For all his good notices, however, Ong is more inclined toward the writerly life. Indeed, with all his upcoming commissions and productions, he’ll have little time to perform in the next year or so. “The writing is what’s kicked off more,” says Ong, who cites influences as disparate as filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and actor-writer Wallace Shawn. “If the performing was what kicked off, I guess I’d have to fulfill that, but this is how it turned out.”

Temperamentally, that suits him fine. “Writing is private, the difference between a private and a public persona,” says Ong. “When I perform, I have to psych myself up for a week before to put on this public diva persona. I’ve had 24 years to become comfortable in the skin of a writer and only two years to be comfortable in the skin of a performer. I’m much more comfortable in a recessive frame.”

Yet even when multiple major theaters are falling all over themselves to get a piece of you, there can be uncomfortable questions that go along with success. Young artists like Ong, for instance, can begin to wonder if they’re simply the flavor of the week, and if they are, why?

It might be ethnic tokenism, and no one is more acutely aware of that possibility than Ong. “I have little faith in people picking up my mantle principally because of aesthetic considerations and I think that any ethnic writer or artist who thinks twice about his position will come to that same conclusion,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ll become more at ease with it. It will always be there.”

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Still, there is the best to be made of even this situation. “Right now, I just don’t know how else to take it, except to just take it,” says Ong. “People’s motives are one thing, but what I do with the opportunities granted me are another thing entirely. I do not have a device to see into the hearts of people, so I just take it as a given that my race is part of the consideration.”

Then, too, there are the inevitable decisions a Los Angeles theater artist must make about whether or not to defect to New York. “I’ve lived here for eight years, so I must like it in some ways,” says Ong. “But I’ve known from the outset that unfortunately I do have to be validated by institutions outside here to have a career locally.”

Stay or go, Ong is now headed down a road that will be filled with more than opening night roses and accolades. “The one lesson that I’ve learned is that nobody is obliged to be nice to you,” he muses. “Especially if you’re beginning and it doesn’t seem like you’re riding in on a glory banner from having been vindicated elsewhere. They’d much rather be curt and brief.”


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