The Rip Post              Q&A: Playwright Henry Ong

The Rip Post Interview:
Playwright Henry Ong

talks about his new work, "The Legend of the White Snake"

Eight-time L.A. Cultural Affairs Dept. grant recipient Henry Ong has adapted a beloved Chinese myth, beginning a four-week run July 21 in Eagle Rock.

              L.A.-based Henry Ong is an internationally-produced playwright whose signature play, "Madame Mao's Memories," based on the life of Chairman Mao's widow, was performed at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego as well as many U.S. and international cities. He went on to write the DramaLogue Award-winning "People Like Me" (based on the writings of gay and lesbian teenagers, to be published in the fall by Norman Maine Publishing), "Fabric" (based on the enslavement of Thai garment workers in Southern California), and "Sweet Karma" (based on the life of the late Oscar-winning actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor.)
             Now Ong, an eight-time Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department grant recipient, has adapted the beloved Chinese mythical drama, "The Legend of the White Snake," to begin a four-week run at the Sylvan Amphitheater in Eagle Rock July 21.
             Written and directed by the Singapore-born playwright, "The Legend of the White Snake" tells the story of a snake that turns into a woman after a thousand years of meditation. Starring Angelina Cheng and Leonard Wu, it will be performed Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at the Amphitheater (1840 Yosemite Drive, Eagle Rock.) It is presented by the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts and the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks for a suggested donation of $10. (More information is available at (323) 226-1617; or call (818) 634-8464.)
              The story has been adapted for ballet, theater, Chinese and Taiwan television, children's book, and will soon be a joint Taiwan-New Zealand produced film in English.
              Ong, who has incorporated elements of Chinese martial arts, tai chi, and motion into the story, talked to The Rip Post about the new play, why he has turned to a traditional myth after focusing past plays on hard reality, its aspects of "inter-species" and "inter-alien" relationships, and even how the play has implications for current events in this country.

Rip Post:  Please explain some of the history of the story, “The Legend of the White Snake.” 

ONG:  Yes, this is based on the Chinese mythological tale of a snake that incarnates as a woman after a thousand years of meditation.  In the Chinese community, it is a very well-known story.  I’ve seen two Chinese movies based on the tale and I know it is a popular story in Chinese opera.

Rip Post:  What, traditionally speaking, are the morals of the story?

ONG:  The story itself is pretty straight-forward.  A woman who was once a snake falls in love with a man (Hsu Xian) who is oblivious of her true nature.  When Hsu Xian finds out that his wife is a snake, the truth kills him.  White Snake, at great danger to herself, goes in search of a fungus that will save his life.  Although Hsu Xian comes around and eventually accepts her for what she is, he is captured by a Buddhist monk who forces him to join a monastery.  “Renounce this unholy alliance!” admonishes the monk (shades of the religious right here?).  As I see it, the moral of the story is: love and accept each other, whatever your differences. It’s about searching for the answers.  It’s about learning about ourselves.  It’s about acceptance of differences.  It’s about not being dogmatic.  It’s about transcending one’s self.

Rip Post:  You have adapted this fable to include some rather startling themes:  “inter-species” and “inter-alien” relationships.  Um…this sounds more like science-fiction?

ONG:  Well, it certainly is a theme inherent in the story.  Although it could be couched as a fairy tale or folktale, as an artist, I wanted to explore what would happen if indeed a human being were faced with such a predicament.  Suspension of disbelief, yes, but also, we need to project and treat it as a very real life situation.  Edward Albee tackled the bestiality element in “The Goat” where the protagonist has an affair with a goat.  In this case, a man is unwittingly drawn into a relationship with someone whom he thinks is a woman.  On finding out she is really a snake, how does he reconcile his love with reality?  He has to “search his conscience” and re-examine everything he stands for in life.  At its core, “The Legend of the White Snake” is a love story.  Like most love stories, there is a conflict, whether it’s racial, religious, or in this case, “inter-species” or “inter-alien.”  I suppose it could loosely be interpreted as treading in science fiction territory, but I was more interested in exploring human emotions.  One could also cite examples in Western literature, our own tales of princesses who fall in love with beasts, or of those who kiss frogs.

Rip Post:  The idea of a snake turning into a woman, on the surface, could have less-than-flattering implications, at least in western culture.  Yet the snake symbolizes some qualities that are quite admirable in Chinese lore, yes?

ONG:  Although I’m not by any means an expert on Chinese symbolism, it is my sense that dragons and tigers are probably more generally admired than snakes.  But the snake has its place too, given its standing as one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.  In this particular story, the Chinese are as disdainful of snakes as the Westerners would be.  I can imagine that it might be a different story if Hsu Xian discovered his wife was a dragon.  Or a tiger. 

Rip Post:  Your history as a playwright has tended toward reality, what with Madame Mao’s Memories and Fabric, which dealt with enslavement of Thai garment workers in L.A.  Why did you choose to turn to the fantastic this time?  Why adapt this particular myth, of all the Chinese myths?

ONG:  As a writer, I want to be able to write about anything that captures my fancy, and not be limited to any one genre.  In addition to biographies (Madame Mao’s Memories, Sweet Karma) and docu-dramas (Fabric, People Like Me), I’ve written adaptations (Dream of the Red Chamber), plays for youth (Fire Boy, Golden Flower Princess) and even a musical (Odd Birds).  Recently, inspired by Gabriel Marquez Garcia, I wrote The Old Lady Who Popped Out of the Sidewalk and Became a Christmas Tree (performed by students at the Marlton School for the Deaf in 2003.)

In the case of White Snake, it’s a story I grew up with.  Eons ago, when I was young and impressionable, I saw a Shaw Bros.’ movie entitled “Madam White Snake.”  That movie left a lasting impression on me.  In particular, I was struck by the performance of the star of that movie—Lin Dai.  Lin Dai was Asia’s number one box-office star in the 60s.  Barely two months before her 30th birthday, she committed suicide.  A couple of years later, her co-star, Margaret Tu Chuan (who played her sister) also killed herself.  Together, Tu Chuan and her “blood” sister jumped from a high-rise building.  Who knows what the real reasons for their untimely and tragic deaths?  But it was their searing performances on screen, not their desperate acts, that kept the story alive for me.  I actually dedicate this particular production to these two actors who provided me with the initial inspiration.  I hope I have done justice to the story and to the memory of these remarkable artists.

Rip Post: That's an astonishing story. . . Why and how did you incorporate elements of tai chi and martial arts into the production?

ONG:  I’ve always wanted to write a martial arts play, or at least one that incorporates martial arts elements.  I grew up watching Asian movies and have always been fascinated by the fantastical “spinning in the air” and “flying” moves.  If this were an indoor play, I would have explored having actors suspended on wire.  It just seems so much fun to have these visuals.  While it is not possible to match the wizardry of these movies, I want to at least inject some movement and martial arts elements in this particular production.  I am lucky to have found an actor with 25 years of acting and martial arts experience who has agreed not only to help choreograph the fight scenes, but also to participate as an actor.  Craig Ng is his name.  Craig and his dance partner, Monica Favand, director of Trip Dance, will choreograph movement and martial arts into the play.  I must mention my friend Melissa Prouty who generously contributed her time to teach the actors the yang-style tai chi ch’uanTai chi is such a theatrical device…I used it in Madame Mao’s Memories as well. 

Rip Post: What, no special effects by Industrial Light and Magic?

ONG:  I wish.  I have no budget for this.  We are dependent on donations.  Since the space is earmarked for community projects, we are not allowed to sell tickets per se.  So, for this production, I’m focusing mainly on two things—text and movement.  We are lucky to have such a beautiful outdoor setting (it comes complete with a tree where Hsu Xian meets White Snake for the first time), and therefore we haven’t had to spend much on set design.  And since it’s summer, we decided to start the show at 7 p.m. so that we’ll have natural light till about 8:30 p.m. and won’t need an elaborate lighting system.  [The play is about an hour and a half long.]

Rip Post:  What is the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts and how did the people there come to select your play?

ONG:  The Center is a seven-year old arts organization serving communities in northeast Los Angeles.  Its mission is to present innovative, multicultural programming of arts classes, festivals, concerts and contemporary art exhibitions to the community.  Lui Sanchez, the Center’s programming director, came to see a reading of The Legend of the White Snake at Boston Court in Pasadena earlier this year, and he thought that the play could be included in the Center’s summer program.

Rip Post:  The story has been turned into movies, TV series and ballets, I think.  What are you doing differently?  What is your angle that has not already been covered?  Who is the intended audience?

ONG:  I’d like to think it’ll be different because it’s written by Henry Ong.  The basic storyline is intact, but I’m telling it through my perspective.  I wanted also to inject some of the Chinese elements of storytelling—martial arts, tai chi, face painting, Chinese dance.  I actually did an abridged version of the story with deaf students at Marlton School in May this year, and to have a multicultural group of students perform so Chinese a play proved to me that a good yarn is a good yarn, and that it transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries.  I would also like to think that this story will appeal to everyone, but since it’s presented by the Eagle Rock Center for the community, the immediate audience is families.  Hopefully everyone in the community—mothers, fathers, children, grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers—will come.

Also on the question as to how this version is different from the others, I have taken liberties and included several characters of my own. One of them is that of Boy, the narrator who guides the audience through various scenes. In including the character, I created a structure in which to tell the story. Who is boy and what is his connection to White Snake? Why do they seem to know each other? Another creation is that of Young Woman, the nanny of the Boy. Anyway, I may be revealing more than is necessary at this point. Come see the show.

Rip Post:  Who is playing White Snake and who is playing the Woman?  Same actor/actress?

ONG:  Angelina Cheng plays the lead, and her participation in this production is serendipitous.  On the first day of rehearsal, I lost my lead actor to a movie deal.  So I was scrambling to find a replacement.  Although I was given a long list of seasoned actors, for some reason or another, I couldn’t reach any of them.  Then I remembered that someone (unknown to me) had sent me an e-picture and resume, so I searched for it and contacted her immediately.  The actress was Angelina Cheng.  I met with her together with my movement choreographer and production coordinator that same evening.  Although her resume had no—zilch—experience in theater (she had some film roles), I was sufficiently impressed with her to offer her the part.  She also had no martial arts or dance background, but she impressed the choreographer at how well she was able to pick up movements.  So Angelina is making her theatrical debut in a lead role!  I find this pretty amazing.  Other cast members include Leonard Wu as Hsu Xian; Andrea Apuy as Green (White’s sister, also a snake); Craig Ng (the choreographer) as Fa Hai, Kennedy Kabasares as Boy (an invented character); Regina Cheng-Sheu as Young Woman (another invented character); Charles Kim as the Celestial Emperor and other roles; Louisa Abernathy as the Mother [she alternates with Venita Metoyer]; and Dennis Yen as the Immortal of the South.

Woodcut paintings by Yang Liu Qing