Haing S. Ngor won an Academy Award for portraying a survivor of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime in the 1984 movie “The Killing Fields,” but his own life story offers an equally riveting and dramatic tale.
That’s the audience hook for a new stage play based on the life and untimely death of the doctor-turned-actor.
Although the playwright contends that he was scrupulous in adapting Ngor’s life for the theater, the estate of the late Oscar winner has come out against the play, threatening to take legal action against the writer.
“Sweet Karma,” by Henry Ong, is having its West Coast premiere at the Grove Theater Center, a small company in Burbank. The play begins with Ngor’s shooting death in 1996 outside his home near downtown Los Angeles, in which he was the victim of an apparent gang-related robbery.
The play then goes back in time as his spirit revisits the major events of his life with the help of a guardian-angel figure.
Ngor’s estate has objections to what it sees as the play’s mix of fact and fiction, spokesman Jack Ong said in an interview. Ong, who isn’t related to the playwright, was a close friend of the late actor, with whom he founded the Haing S. Ngor Foundation, a charitable group that has mostly supported humanitarian work and relief in Cambodia.
Ong declined to elaborate because “legal action is imminently pending regarding the matter of this unauthorized play,” he wrote in an email. A lawyer for Ngor’s estate didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Trained as a gynecologist, Ngor survived the dictatorship of Pol Pot, but lost his wife and unborn child. He eventually escaped into Thailand and came to the U.S. as a refugee. He lived modestly in an L.A. apartment, finding a job as a social worker in Chinatown. But an encounter with a Hollywood casting agent changed all that.
Despite no prior acting experience, Ngor was cast as real-life journalist Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields,” and eventually won the Oscar for supporting actor.
“Sweet Karma” was previously produced in a slightly different version in New York’s Queens in 2009, and in various workshop readings on both coasts. The play uses a fictitious name for its protagonist --"Dr. Vichear Lam” -- and the Burbank company has avoided using photographic likenesses of Ngor to promote the play.
But “Lam” is unmistakably Ngor. Publicity material sent to local journalists describes the character as “a murdered Cambodian holocaust survivor and Oscar-winner.” The website for the theater says the play is about a man who “survives the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, wins an Oscar for his role in ‘The Killing Fields,’ and then is gunned down on the streets of L.A.”
The 90-minute play has been actively promoted via Facebook and other social-media channels in the Cambodian community in Long Beach, where many still regard Ngor as a national hero.
“Sweet Karma” depicts its hero as a humble man who is plagued by survivor’s guilt. It also paints him as a womanizer who was an unfaithful husband. In one scene set in Cambodia, the doctor is shown having sex with a female patient in an exam room, only to be discovered by his wife.
In writing the play, Ong said that he relied on published accounts -- including Ngor’s 1987 autobiography -- and interviews with people who claimed to know the actor. The playwright said he didn’t personally know Ngor and only met him once at a public event.
The playwright said that early drafts used Ngor’s real name, but he decided to go with a fictional moniker after a workshop reading in 2008 at the City University of New York that was attended by the late actor’s closest survivor -- his niece, Sophia Ngor Demetri.
The writer said that he received emails from Ngor’s niece in which she expressed disapproval of aspects of the play, after which he decided that "if she’s so unhappy with it, maybe the best thing to do is to change the name.”
Ngor Demetri declined to comment for the record when reached by phone at her home in Long Island.
The late actor’s foundation had initially cooperated with the writer on the development of the play, but the creative relationship ended after the 2008 reading.
When the play was produced in Queens in 2009, organizers received emails from Ngor Demetri threatening legal action, according to Marcy Arlin, artistic director of the Immigrants’ Theatre Project, one of the play’s producers.
But no legal action was taken and the play proceeded as scheduled, she said.
Using a fictitious name “freed me a little bit dramatically,” the playwright said. “I didn’t feel so confined. I tried to be true to the spirit of this person, but I didn’t make things up.”
The late actor’s estate is likely to have a difficult time stopping the playwright, according to Jack Lerner, a law professor at the University of Southern California, who isn’t involved in the dispute.
He said that the work is protected under the First Amendment and that a defamation claim would fail because the subject of the play is dead.
After Ngor’s death in 1996, three members of an Asian American gang were arrested and convicted of murder. But some continue to believe that his death was part of a politically motivated conspiracy in retaliation for his role in “The Killing Fields” and his subsequent humanitarian work.
“Sweet Karma” is scheduled to end its four-week run in Burbank on Sunday. The playwright said he wants to bring it to other theater companies around the country, but said there are so far no concrete plans.