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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2017

Han Ong Comes Full Circle with Grandeur

Tuesday, June 6, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Emily Wilson

Han Ong made his professional theatre debut at Magic Theatre with Reasons to Live. Reason to Live. Half. No Reason. Now, after a 25 year hiatus, he’s back at the Magic with Grandeur, a play about the late legendary musician and writer Gil Scott-Heron, famous for spoken word pieces such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

“The thing about Gil Scott-Heron that truly moved me was the discrepancy between what I felt was his mastery and his afterlife reputation,” Ong said. “Some people have as large a footprint in the afterlife as they did in life—for example, John Lennon. Gil Scott Heron was big in life, and not so big in the afterlife—people kind of forgot about him.”

Han Ong, Photo by Annette Hornischer

Ong moved here from the Philippines with his family when he was 16. Sickly as a child, Ong loved books and knew he wanted to be a writer. When he got to Los Angeles, he waited for his transcripts to come from his school in Manila, expecting to be in the 12th grade. But when the transcripts arrived, he was placed in the 10th grade. Rather than spend extra years in school, Ong got his GED and worked odd jobs so that he could be independent and start writing. Winning the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship at 29, helped people overlook his not having gone to college, he says.

“I guess any description of me would have to involve the MacArthur,” he said. “When you’re teaching and people need credentials, it’s just as good if not better than to have an MFA—it sort of precedes me in the door.”

But a year after receiving the MacArthur in recognition of his acclaimed early plays, Ong’s path veered away from the theatre. In 1998, he started his novel, Fixer Chao, which was published in 2001. Writing it took so much time, that he took a break from penning plays and after it was published and named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, he started working on The Disinherited, which was published in 2004.

It was a job teaching playwriting at New York’s 92nd Street Y that got Ong back into theatre. He says that his students, who ranged from twenty somethings to retirees, made him miss writing plays. “They loved going to the theater, they loved talking about the theatre, so that love slowly seeped back into me from being in those rooms teaching playwriting,” Ong said. “I got re-infected with the bug as it were.”

Having been out of the theatre for more than 10 years, Ong wrote a few experimental pieces he didn’t finish. Then in 2014, New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company produced his play Chairs and a Long Table, which responded to the controversy around the La Jolla Playhouse casting non-Asian actors in a musical version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale set in China. He showed Grandeur to his friend, writer Jessica Hagedorn, who loved it. She encouraged him to send it to the Magic, where her play, Dogeaters, was produced last year.

Carl Lumbly. Photo by Brad Buckman

Bay Area actor Carl Lumbly, who has worked in theatre, movies, and TV, including playing a detective on Cagney and Lacey and a CIA agent on Alias, stars as Scott-Heron.  Lumbly calls the musician one of his heroes for his politics, music, and writing. He expected the play to be more of a biography of a "bluesologist,” as Scott-Heron referred to himself, but he thinks it goes deeper in showing how Scott-Heron wanted to resist other people’s definitions of him.  

“Sometimes it’s in other people’s interests to place a mantle on you, and it’s in your own best interests to resist that mantle,” Lumbly said. “He had this lyrical coherence and was almost like a troubadour. They used to wander the land and report on what was going on at the court. That appealed to me—he had a writer’s brilliance, and he believed in vocabulary and was fearless with a surgical eye and a wit to him.”

In the play, a journalist from the New York Review of Books is interviewing him, wanting to focus on his books as well as his music. Lumbly says he tries to convey Scott-Heron’s honesty and artistry in the role, as well as showing the struggles of the artist, who at the end of his life was smoking crack cocaine.

“The way Han has written him in the interview with a reporter and in a relationship with a niece, he’s not trying to pull the wool or pull any punches—he’s trying to pull his weight as an artist,” Lumbly says. “He does accept he is flawed, but he can’t be apologetic about it. Life unfurls, and we make good choices and bad choices, but as long as you’re not trying to misrepresent yourself, you can walk with your head up or down.”

Ong is particularly glad to have Lumbly, whom he calls a Bay Area “stalwart and superstar” in this role. As a young playwright in Los Angeles, Ong was part of a group who could see productions for free as well as get practical advice on their plays. He saw Lumbly starring in a play, Eden, and the actor made an impression on him.

“When he did a reading of Grandeur, I told him I remember being very moved by him and the play,” Ong said. “Nice, right? There’s a bunch of circular stuff with this play—me and Carl, and me and the Magic.”

Grandeur runs till June 25 at Magic Theatre.

Emily Wilson writes for print, the web and radio. She also teaches at City College of San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @ehw415