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Off-Off Broadway stalwart Ping Chong reflects on 50 years of creation and change
In 1972, when Ping Chong was 26, he made his first independent theatre piece: Lazarus. Performed in a Tribeca loft that belonged to Meredith Monk, it cost $100 to mount. There was no set, no one was paid, and Chong borrowed a slide projector from a friend. Although it was a low-budget affair, Chong's urban reimagining of the biblical story of Lazarus featuring performers, projections and puppets launched his celebrated half-century career as a multidisciplinary theatre-maker. Now, as he prepares to hand over the reins of his eponymous company to others, he is resurrecting Lazarus for a farewell run from September 29 to October 16 at La MaMa, his longtime artistic home.
"I told them, 'You can keep my name for the next year, but then you have to change it," says the 76-year-old without a hint of sentimentality about Ping Chong + Company, the troupe he founded in 1975. "Whatever they do after I leave is not going to represent me personally. The organization is going to morph into something else."
But before the curtain falls on Chong's tenure with the company—which has produced more than 100 original productions all over the world, including the acclaimed documentary-theatre series Undesirable Elements—he's revisiting the piece that started it all. Rechristened Lazarus 1972–2022, the show is a meditation on the passage of time, both personally and professionally. "I'm a mature artist now," he says. "I'm not a young artist finding my way like I was back then."
Born in Toronto and raised in Manhattan's Chinatown, Chong explored feelings of alienation and isolation in his original Lazarus as he looked to make his mark outside his insular community. "This show was certainly autobiographical, metaphorically," says Chong. "People tend to say, 'Oh, he's part of the avant-garde.' But I, myself, was always marginalized by the avant-garde. I was always an other, even in the theatre world. When you talk about people who march to a different drum, that's my case, because I couldn't fit in. I could never fit in. It just wasn't me."
Lazarus 1972–2022 isn't just about how Chong has evolved, it also examines how New York City has changed. "I grew up here," he says. "So, watching what's happened to the city is also very much part of this piece in a way it was not in '72." Back then, "NYC was bankrupt. Soho was completely barren." But the low cost of living allowed artists to thrive, especially downtown.
As a theatre-maker from a poor, immigrant background, Chong acknowledges he could never make Lazarus as a 26-year-old today. "We lived in a time when the cost of housing was not prohibitive," he says. Gentrification, income inequality and the displacement of artists, immigrants and communities of color mean the city is no longer feasible for those who aspire to make groundbreaking, experimental work. "I tell young people, if you love something, you will do it no matter what, no matter how hard the odds, you do it. You might not be able to do it here. You might have to move and do it somewhere else. And then a new community, possibly, will evolve."
So, Lazarus is not just the story of a man who rises from the dead, but also a lamentation of a world that's been lost. "Ironically, I'm other again, because the city has changed," says Chong. "I can't connect to the new world, the whole digital world. It's not my world."
Which is why Chong is making his exit now, though he wants his legacy to live on. While theatre companies affiliated with a particular artist often fold when the namesake leaves, Ping Chong + Company has an ambitious three-year leadership transition plan supported by a generous Mellon Foundation grant with the goal of forging the next generation of interdisciplinary artists.
Chong is also leaving because he wants to spend his final years with his family, though he's not retiring from theatre completely. He just wants to make work on his own time without hard deadlines. After Lazarus 1972-2022 closes, he will begin interviewing Ukrainian refugees for a new installment of Undesirable Elements, which showcases real people telling their own life stories.
"I'm grateful I've had the opportunity to do so much in 50 years," he says. "I also want to bow out gracefully. I just want to go off on my own. And if I do anything more, it'll happen. If I don't, it's okay, too." He then adds with a relaxed smile. "I'm content. I've had a great run. I'm not greedy."
Top image: Lazarus 1972-2022. Photo by Richard Termine.