From April 1975 until January 1979, the country of Cambodia was ruled by the notorious political party called the Khmer Rouge. Its extreme ideals of communism intended to eradicate not only wealth and social class but also to repress basic civil and human rights. These attempts to create a completely self-sustained agricultural state essentially transformed the country into a massive labor camp where families were separated and organized resistance was stomped out by torture and executions. Unknown to most of the world during its rampage, the Khmer Rouge was blamed for the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians. Its actions during that era are now often called theCambodian genocide.
Henry Ong’s new play, Sweet Karma, takes its inspiration from one man’s survival of the Khmer Rouge and the extraordinary turn of events that occurred later in his life — including an Academy Award for best supporting actor and a violent ending on the streets of Los Angeles. Karma opens Saturday at Grove Theater Center Burbank.
“The Western idea [of karma] is mostly about an immediate action and reaction,” says Ong. “But in its true meaning, it may not happen until many, many years later.”
An internationally produced playwright, some of Ong’s better known works include Madame Mao’s Memories, Fabric, The Legend of the White Snake andPeople Like Me. An early draft ofSweet Karma was first produced in December 2009 by Immigrants’ Theatre Project and Queens Theatre in the Park (New York City). The script continued to evolve over the years, even as Ong completed other projects.
“I write when the spirit moves me,” says Ong of his writing discipline. “I think it’s important to write even if what you’re working on in the moment is garbage. And so I do. It will usually get better.”
Armed with a biology degree, Ong is part scientist with his writing — investigating human nature and the complicated politics surrounding human affairs. Ong also believes his interest in writingKarma was primarily piqued by the universal themes of spirituality that seemed evident in the compelling life of Haing S. Ngor.
After surviving the labor camps of the Khmer Rouge, Ngor, a surgeon by profession, moved first to Thailand, then America in 1980. Unable to practice medicine in the United States, Ngor eventually landed in Los Angeles where, in a twist of Hollywood fate, he was cast and later won an Oscar for his supporting role in The Killing Fields — the 1984 film depicting the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities from the viewpoints of two journalists.
As someone inspired to write about social injustice, Ong focused on the biographical points of Ngor’s story as well as the overall theme of karma in a life challenged by extreme twists of fate. But Ong chose to dramatize the story through a fictional main character and a particular use of language.
“What I wanted to convey was not so much the reality of everyday speech but the contrast of the universal ideas, and that affects the language and how people talk to each other,” says Ong. “The idea of karma is very special to this particular character, and I wanted to find a way to address that.”
Presented as part of Grove Theater Center’s New Play Initiative, Karma was one of four plays from submissions selected for the program’s reading series. GTC’s artistic director, Kevin Cochran, believes the program has been helpful in identifying emerging playwrights while also introducing their work to Los Angeles audiences and small to mid-size theaters.
“The goal of the GTC New Play Initiative is to develop new plays that are practical for small professional theaters to produce,” says Cochran. “We define a new script as one which has not received a Broadway, Off-Broadway or LORT production. It’s also important that it be a script the playwright wants to continue working on.”
Rainbow Dickerson and Jon Jon Briones
As the selected scripts are rehearsed for a public reading, Cochran serves as director and dramaturg — shaping the script with the writer. After each of the four readings, two scripts are selected to receive a workshop production. Karma also made the final step in GTC’s New Play Initiative as a full production, which entailed additional research for Ong on both Ngor’s life experiences and the details of the socio-political events surrounding his life.
Additional drafts and rewrites led to the final draft earlier this year. Ong found the step-by-step development process with GTC helpful in refining his script.
“I always love working with actors to fine-tune,” says Ong. “That part is always so helpful to me. And this is a very LA story. So it’s also nice to be here with this production that we can all feel a little closer to…There is a Cambodian community here that knows this story well. And anyone who doesn’t will learn a little more.”
The life of Ngor ended in tragedy. In 1996, he was shot and killed in front of his Los Angeles home, shrouded in rumors that the crime was an act of retaliation from a Cambodian underground sympathizing with the old Khmer Rouge. But rather than delve completely into the political intrigue surrounding Ngor’s death, Ong’s script remains true to its investigation of spirituality.
Karma has also endured its own set of challenges as a new play in production. In fact, it was originally slated to open mid-May, but additional development during the original rehearsal process and the unfortunate headache of recasting led to an eventual pushing back of opening night.
“The production was not where we wanted it to be….We decided to postpone the opening,” says Ong. “Several of the actors had conflicts with our new proposed opening, so we had to recast.”
With opening night on the way, Ong looks forward to sharing his take on karma and the spirituality he believes people are always looking for.
“I was initially drawn to the true life story of this Cambodian immigrant,” says Ong. “But as I researched his life, I was intrigued by the concept of karma and how that shapes a person’s life and destiny. Like the lotus flower, it blooms in the grime and dirt. That is a way to think about it.”
Sweet Karma, Grove Theater Center Burbank, 1111-b West Olive, Burbank 91506. Opens Saturday. Fri – Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through July 20. Tickets: $29.50 – $14.75. gtc.org. 818-238-9998.
**All Sweet Karma production photos by Kevin Cochran.