JOHN LONE: His Art Blends the Best of Two Cultures on Stage

“Pay attention to the way you walk,” the actor and director John Lone is telling a young actress. “You were going like this,” he says, hiking up his jacket to show off the sensual sway of his hips as he walks across the rehearsal room. “That’s too sexy, too contemporary. Your character is very protected. She’s simple and innocent. She walks like this.” Mr. Lone goes back the way he came, this time in a more contained posture, bowing his head, tucking his hips under, and slightly bending his knees as he walks. An observer watching this demonstration might think he had just seen two different people, a gum-chewing flirt in stretch pants and a humble, kimono-clad maidservant. Yet both were enacted by a tall, unshaven man in red sweat pants, a plaid hunter’s jacket, and a black-and-white checked beret.

His physical grace, his dancer’s sense of movement, and his ability to transcend age, sex, and culture make John Lone an extraordinary performer by any standards. But he has proved uniquely useful to David Henry Hwang, the 26-year-old Chinese-American playwright whose two one-act plays, The Sound of a Voice and The House of Beauties – collectively known as Sound and Beauty – open Wednesday at the Public Theater in a production directed by Mr. Lone. All of Mr. Hwang’s work including F.O.B., The Dance and the Railroad, and Family Devotions, previously produced at the Public, attempts to combine Asian myths and theater styles with contemporary American characters and realities. And that combination finds its perfect embodiment in Mr. Lone.

Born in Hong Kong 31 years ago, Mr. Lone began his career in the theater at the age of 9 as an apprentice with a company trained in the Peking Opera style. He underwent 10 years of strict training in classical Chinese theater techniques, living, eating, and studying in one building isolated from any outside influences, academically or socially. His curiosity eventually drove him to leave the cloistered world of the Peking Opera, and he started devouring American movies, going to two or three a day. He turned down a 10-year contract to make Kung Fu movies and an offer to join Maurice Bejart’s dance company in Brussels. He moved to Los Angeles, where he spent three years in night school until he could speak English well enough to take acting classes.

“I grew up in this old world, this secret world, this religion of perfection,” says Mr. Lone, whose English is fluent if heavily accented and at times ungrammatical. “Peking Opera is a total theater form with no psychological reason behind it,” he says. “They teach singing, acting, tumbling, acrobatics, form, symbolism, everything except psychological understanding. Whatever little thing happens inside, I don’t know what it is. If it happens, if tears come one night, I’m criticized – too emotional, not supposed to be emotional. When I started studying Method, Western acting, I loved it. Now I understood there’s a reason for a character’s behavior. The approach is much more immediate, knowing the thoughts behind the character, the history. I was so excited, I can’t tell you. What I did before was important” – he claps his hands over his heart – “but this” – pointing to his head – “is also so important.”

It was quite a blow to the head and heart, however, when Mr. Lone learned how little work there is for Asian actors in this country. He describes the few jobs he got in television and film as “living atmosphere.” It was an enormous stroke of luck, then, when his former acting teacher Mako, who was directing F.O.B. at the Public, sent the script to Mr. Lone and said, “This is your part.” The role of Steve, a Chinese immigrant “fresh off the boat,” could have been custom-written for John Lone; bewildered by American customs and scorned by ABCs (American-born Chinese), he defends himself by acting out the exploits of the legendary Chinese warrior Gwan Gung. 

Mr. Hwang’s play and Mr. Lone’s performance both won Obie Awards in 1981, and the experience immediately inspired a collaboration on The Dance and the Railroad, which Mr. Lone directed, choreographed, composed music for, and performed in. The play, originally commissioned by the New Federal Theater for its Ethnic Heritage Series and later filmed for cable television, made further use of the impressive physical skills Mr. Lone had exhibited in F.O.B.; it concerned two Chinese men working on the transcontinental railroad in 1867, one of them a happy-go-lucky hedonist, the other a disciplined would-be dancer training for the Peking Opera.

Mr. Lone’s involvement with Sound and Beauty is more complicated. The playwright always wanted Mr. Lone to direct the plays, though there didn’t seem to be a role for him in either one. The House of Beauties details the relationships between an aged writer and the proprietess of a sort of Platonic brothel where old men prepare for death by sleeping next to beautiful young women. In The Sound of a Voice, a warrior falls in love with a witch he is sent to kill. Both plays are set in Japan and contemplate the tricks played by age and beauty, love and death.

The female part in The Sound of a Voice was offered to the Kabuki star Bando Tamasaburo, who expressed interest but was not available for the next three years; Mr. Lone, who had played female roles as a child with the Peking Opera, briefly considered taking the role himself. As it turned out, the actor playing the warrior was fired three days before rehearsals were scheduled to begin, and Mr. Lone stepped into that part.

While Mr. Lone has primarily become known as the key ingredient in Mr. Hwang’s plays, that situation may soon change. His unusual physicality and his ability to express his quick imagination through his body won him the title role in The Iceman, a film by the Australian director Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), about a prehistoric man found frozen in the Arctic ice and brought back to life. He spent five months last winter in Canada working up to 17 hours a day under heavy makeup. But he found the challenge exhilarating, the camera experience invaluable, and the company of Timothy Hutton and Lindsay Crouse enjoyable, even though he pointed out to the screenwriter, John Drimmer, that given the disparity between his salary and Mr. Hutton’s, the film should be renamed Rich Man, Poor Man.

Mr. Lone acknowledges that The Iceman (scheduled for spring release) was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not necessarily a role that will demolish for him the ethnic barrier that all Asian-American actors face. He at least is fortunate enough to have received a rigorous classical training early on. As David Hwang points out, “When you’re writing for Asian actors, they often don’t have as much experience as you might want. It’s a vicious cycle: actors who don’t work don’t get better, therefore it’s hard to cast them, therefore they don’t work.

“In F.O.B. and Railroad I was consciously trying to blend Chinese theater techniques with a Western-style play,” Mr. Hwang continues. “But my background in Asian theater forms is very limited.” The son of an affluent Los Angeles banker, Mr. Hwang has drawn heavily from such sources as novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, playwright Frank Chin, and short story writer Yasunari Kawabata for the traditional elements of his East-West blend. Still he acknowledges, “it’s one thing to put it on paper, another to realize it in theatrical form. What John has made possible is for me to physicalize a relationship between the two cultures.”

New York Times, October 30, 1983