Henry Ong, a fixture of the Los Angeles theatre community for more than 35 years, died Saturday, Sept. 29 after a long battle with cancer. Ong was the quintessential Los Angeles playwright: A first-generation Asian American, he was interested in exploring the immigrant experience and conducted writing/oral history workshops in many L.A. 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. He then moved to Los Angeles and began to pursue a 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.
Ong’s works vary widely, 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. A number of his plays have been produced nationally, including in New York and San Diego (at the Old Globe Theatre), as well as internationally, in London, Edinburgh, and his native 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. And 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 lifelong 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 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 L.A. theatre, Ong was an avid theatregoer, attending an average of 150 performances annually. He served for many seasons as an active voter for The Ovation Awards, the Southern California award for excellence in theatre.
Dubbed “the shyest man in theatre” by Stage Raw, Henry famously avoided the spotlight and cameras unless he was on the other side of the lens. Everyone in the theatre was “a famous person” in his world. No audience member or performer escaped his attention. Ong felt, as he said in that 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.