For a Pioneering Artist, the Joy of Having Done the Work His Way

If you keep a musician friend for over 50 years, as the experimental director Ping Chong has done with Meredith Monk, just maybe at your retirement celebration, that friend will sing you a song. And so on Wednesday night at the performance space Chelsea Factory, a luminous Monk sat down at a keyboard, reminisced about Chong when she first knew him — as a pony-tailed student in her dance class, wearing bell-bottom jeans — and played “Gotham Lullaby.”

At the front of the crowd, Chong stood listening, transported to his earliest days in theater, when he was a member of Monk’s company. At 76, he has long since become a force in his own right in downtown theater. As a documentary film crew glided through the room, emissaries from La MaMa and the Wooster Group were among the more than 250 guests toasting his nearly half century with Ping Chong and Company.

Meredith Monk and Chong have been friends and collaborators for over 50 years. She sang “Gotham Lullaby” at his farewell celebration.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

It was an evening full of warmth and camaraderie, a world away from the loneliness that Chong says he felt when he was an only: toiling alone as an Asian American theater artist in New York. An Obie Award winner and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts — which he received from President Barack Obama in 2014, the same year as Sally Field, Stephen King and Monk, too — Chong formed his company in 1975 and carved out a niche with shows like “Collidescope” (2014), inspired by the killing of Trayvon Martin; the puppet piece “Kwaidan” (1998); and “Nuit Blanche” (1981), about Chong’s touchstone belief that, he said, “we’re all human beings, and we need to stop thinking that what’s on the superficial surface separates us.”

Born in Toronto to parents who immigrated from China, he was four months old when his family relocated to New York City. He grew up in Chinatown, where his parents ran two restaurants and a cafe, and went to the High School of Art and Design in Midtown Manhattan. After two years at Pratt Institute (“The easel next to mine was Robert Mapplethorpe”), he studied film at the School of Visual Arts, graduating in 1969.

Three years later he made his first independent theater piece, “Lazarus,” which he revisited last fall in a version titled “Lazarus 1972-2022,” his final show as artistic director. His current project is the latest installment in the company’s interview-based, social-justice series Undesirable Elements, about Ukraine, set to have its premiere in May.

A Zhongkui puppet by Chinese Theater Works at the Chelsea Factory event.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

After that, Chong plans to take some time “to see what it feels like to be a civilian again,” while working on getting the rest of his archive to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts — a task he views, like cooperating with the makers of the documentary about him, as part of the responsibility to history that accompanies being an Asian American pioneer. With his retirement — and that of Bruce Allardice, Ping Chong and Company’s longtime executive director, who was also celebrated on Wednesday night — the company will continue under the artistic leadership of a four-person team.

Last week, in a rehearsal studio on Great Jones Street in Greenwich Village, Chong sat down to talk about his career. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What was your first experience of theater?

My family’s in the Chinese opera, so it was Chinese opera. I didn’t see Western theater until I was in high school. My mom was a diva. My grandfather was a very famous Chinese opera director-librettist. My father was a director-librettist. My mother was performing in Vietnam in the late ’20s, and my father was directing in Singapore and Malaysia in the ’20s. But I hadn’t planned on being in theater at all. I thought I would be a painter.

What drew you to theater making?

An accident. I didn’t have that much confidence by the time I graduated from film school. I said, “There aren’t any Asian filmmakers.” I was interested in dance. So this young woman said, “You want to take Meredith Monk’s class?” I took the class, and Meredith invited me to take her personal workshop. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here now. At the end of it, Meredith said, “I’m doing a show at Connecticut College in the summer. Are you free to be part of it?” And I said, “I don’t know if I can do it because I’m thinking of going to India.” Sixties, right? I never got to India. I did get to Connecticut College. And my mind was blown because I’d never seen theater like that before. It was like a surrealistic dream. It was completely not realism. Chinese opera is not realism. So the connection was not so crazy for me. Then she invited me to be part of the company.

Some of the table décor, highlighting Chong’s playful sense of humor.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

How do you define theater?

I almost don’t like the term theater. I prefer the term performance because it includes dance. My own work integrates dance and theater and visual arts and all these other things, you know? So I prefer a more generous definition.

Do you have a philosophy of theater making?

The stage cannot compete with cinema or television for realism. Why are we bothering? Theater has its own unique properties. So that means you need to go back to the Greeks. You need to go back to people like the Kabuki or these other theaters that recognize theater is not realism. Theater is a much more imaginative space.

I don’t know why I’m asking this, except that it’s a part of having a long career. Were you ever tempted to —

Chuck it?

To chuck it, yes!

The first time I wanted to chuck it was in 1991. That was the one time I wanted to chuck it, actually. I remember being in Portugal between jobs, lying on the floor, thinking, what else can I do? Nobody talks about how scary it is to create. Because you’re always afraid of failure. That’s the big fear. You always think it’s not going to work. I love what I do, but it’s stressful.

More than 250 guests turned out to toast Chong’s half-century career and leadership with Ping Chong and Company.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

What persuaded you not to quit?

I couldn’t figure out what else I would do. After I had that little crisis, then I was fine. Once I decided to go on, that was the major flowering for me. Artistically. But I think the other thing that happened was in the late ’80s I went to Asia. I had gone to Asia when I was 17, to Japan and to Hong Kong and to Singapore. I never went back until ’86, when I went to this festival in Japan. It was kind of a shock to be in a place where I didn’t stand out because I was Asian, and that was a real revelation. Two years later I was in Hong Kong. I’m Cantonese. Hong Kong is Cantonese. And when I went to Hong Kong, I reconnected with my cultural roots. Up to that point, I was looking to Europe artistically. After that, I said, “Being approved by Europe is not important to me anymore. I’m just going to go my own way.”

Do you remember when you were 17 having that sensation of “I don’t stand out here?” Because when you were 17 you would have been living in Chinatown, right? But also going to a high school that was looking to Europe for validation.

Well, that process of leaving Chinatown and going into the high school — at that point, I was trying to learn how to belong to the new world that I was moving into. The alienation wasn’t happening so much yet because I was discovering a new world. The estrangement didn’t really start for me until college, because that’s when I hit the wall with European art, which I did not connect to. I did connect to surrealism.

“The whole ’70s was a time where I was grappling with identity,” Chong said. “At this point I’m comfortable with both things. Getting there was complicated.”Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Of course you did!

Because it’s a much more stylized world, right? But I didn’t understand any of those things because I was young. I didn’t understand that leaving Chinatown meant being estranged from that and not really comfortable in this. So my early work all had to do with this sense of limbo. “Lazarus” is an example of where I was emotionally, and of feeling estranged. And “Lazarus” was ’72. The whole ’70s was a time where I was grappling with identity, like, where do I belong? At this point I’m comfortable with both things. Getting there was complicated, accepting these two aspects of myself. I actually went to China, to my father’s hometown. And when I left I said — I said to myself, because he was dead already — I said, “OK, I know where you’re from, but this is not where I’m from.” Because I’m from here. Like it or not.

Theater is ephemeral. After 50 years, all those shows, what do you have?

You have the joy of having done them. You have the joy of sharing them with people. It’s all ephemeral anyway. It’s not just theater that’s ephemeral. It’s all ephemeral.

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