Playwright Henry Ong, a steward of the Los Angeles theater, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities for over 35 years, passed away on September 29, 2018 after a three-year battle with cancer. He was known, not only for his world-renowned plays, and his community advocacy, but for shining a light on the audiences of LA theater.
As an Ovation Voter (a member of the LA Stage Alliance who has a responsibility to see and vote on numerous LA-area plays), he would take pictures of other theatergoers and post them to his Facebook account with the caption, “Who are these famous people?” The gesture made the subjects, who he would tag in the photos, feel revered, having been pegged by someone in their community who was, indeed, famous.
From London to Edinburgh, Australia and Singapore, his plays graced stages across the globe. A 16-time recipient of the LA Department of Cultural Affairs Artist-in-Residence grant and recipient of numerous awards for his writing, Ong’s works explored human resilience and the politics of human affairs, often against backdrops of extreme conflict. “People Like Me” chronicled the true-life stories of gay and lesbian youth disenfranchised by their sexuality. “Sweet Karma” was inspired by the true story of one man’s survival of Cambodian Genocide and unexpected successes that came later in life — including an Academy Award for best-supporting actor. “Fabric” examined human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
Ong’s path to playwriting was not clearly paved. Though Ong — born in Malaysia and educated in Singapore — knew he wanted to be a writer at age seven, his parents did not approve. After mentioning his passion to his mother, who responded by crying, he buried the desire and never brought it up again — along with another truth. “I felt trapped in Singapore because I was gay, um, I am gay, and I felt very stifled there. My one aim was to leave Singapore, and the only way I could leave was to go to school,” he told Stage Raw. With a degree in biology, he received a scholarship to the graduate program in journalism at Iowa State University. Upon graduation, he moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in a playwriting course at the UCLA Extension. While juggling a day job in public relations for the Department of Water and Power, he began writing and submitting prolifically, fast becoming one of LA’s most regularly-produced playwrights.
In 1996, Ong began developing the play that became “People Like Me” by going to high schools and holding workshops with youth who identified as gay or lesbian, and speaking with them about their struggles. When the play was produced by Playwrights Arena in 1997, Ong invited those youth to see the show. For many, it was the first time seeing their own experiences reflected back to them, and is what some credited for the inspiration and strength to come out to their families and communities. “Times are very different now, but back then, people in the theater weren’t talking about gay teen experiences,” says friend and founding artistic director of Playwrights Arena, Jon Lawrence Rivera. “That’s what Henry did: he got people opening up, talking about themselves for the first time.” “People Like Me” received the DramaLogue Award for Excellence in Writing.
When not writing, Ong was attending theater, often with his husband, seeing upwards of 100 plays a year. “He saw everything, big, small, experimental – it didn’t matter. If it was on stage, he wanted to see it,” Rivera says. Armed with a new iPhone, Ong began approaching other theatergoers by declaring their fame: “Oh, you’re famous.” Some would deflect, saying they were nobody, “but he would treat everyone like celebrities, like they really mattered, says playwright and long-time friend Lorely Trinidad-Ontal.
Ong would then post the pictures to Facebook, tagging the theater and the subjects of the photo. Today, the entirety of his Facebook uploads are pictures of other people, forming a veritable archive of the LA theater community. “That’s what Henry did: he got the audience, which is otherwise invisible, to be seen. Just as he did with his writing,” says Trinidad-Ontal. “Turning the camera onto these invisible communities became something really magical.” This ritual of posting pictures to Facebook supposing everyone’s fame earned Ong the unofficial title, “The Most Famous One,” by which he was referred most lovingly, both by those who knew him closely, as well as merely in name.
When people stopped seeing Ong at the theater, they knew something was wrong. “And then we didn’t see him on Facebook anymore, and that’s when we really started worrying,” says Rivera. Upon hearing of his passing, members of the LA theater community began reposting the Facebook pictures in which they’d been tagged by Ong, adding comments like “thank you for making us all famous,” and “you are with all the most famous ones now — they’re lucky to have you.” What had started as a casual, quirky way to connect with people on social media became the fortified fabric, much like a quilt, that bound a community together.
Memorial service for Henry Ong is on Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 3 p.m. at Chapel of the Hills, Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills. In honor of Henry’s free spirit, casual attire.