Performance artist, comedian and community activist Kristina Wong is delivering the pandemic debriefing I didn’t know how badly I needed.
She’s brought her acclaimed solo show, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, back home to the city that spawned its creation. Under the unobtrusive yet nurturing direction of Chay Yew, Wong is unleashed in all her vibrant, wacky, lovably chaotic immediacy.
The stage has been set up (under the auspices of scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee) as a playroom version of Wong’s sewing space in Koreatown, where she not only lives but also serves as an elected representative on the Neighborhood Council. A Hello Kitty sewing machine stands at the ready.
In March 2020, just as California’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order went into effect, Wong swung into superhero action. As a solo performer who had been making the rounds of the community college circuit, she wasn’t considered an essential worker. But she quickly made herself indispensable.
“Sweatshop Overlord” reenacts with puckish commentary how she discovered her mission as the epidemiological news went from bad to worse. Clutching a phone that becomes not only a personal lifeline but also a public hot line, Wong assembles an outfit (courtesy of costume designer Lindo Cho) that’s part Rambo, part Jane Fonda aerobics video. She’s prepared for battle.
The real-life story is as frenetic as it is inspiring. Combining her sewing skills with her community outreach know-how, Wong organized a small army of mostly Asian American women to sew cloth masks for populations in desperate need of them. In a rebuke of the nation’s capitalist creed, orders were prioritized around vulnerability.
Breathlessly, Wong recounts how she built her operation and became its wisecracking overlord. Sewing has been dismissed as women’s work and undervalued as immigrant labor. But Wong finds meaningful connection to her heritage through a skill that, as she notes, was “passed down from the elder women” in her family.
At a time when President Trump was responding to COVID-19 with inflammatory rhetoric and anti-Asian violence was on the rise, Wong refused to feel like an outsider in her own country. But she knew that the streets of Koreatown were eerily deserted and that wearing a mask could make her a potential target of street violence.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m third-generation Chinese American,” she says. Pointing to her own unmasked face, she explains, “This is a mask I can’t take off. It already tells people that maybe I’m an immigrant from the monolith that is Asia. Maybe I don’t speak English. Maybe I’m the one who brought the virus here.”
To protect her health risked endangering her public safety. The horrific irony wasn’t lost on Wong, but her instinct to translate the experience into political satire would have to wait. America needed on-the-ground heroes, and she was determined to answer the call.
With the help of Facebook, she assembled a network of sewing “aunties” who could manufacture cloth masks from their sewing stations at home. She texted everyone she knew for fabric, be it bedsheets or beloved shirts. She hunted down elastic far and wide and accepted donations of headbands, hair ties and even bras.
She wasn’t doing it for CNN glory, but shifting the public narrative was life-sustaining at a time when her community’s identity felt under attack. The forces of racism and fascism gained strength during the pandemic, so she conscripted additional workers — youngsters included — in her social justice sewing campaign.
Wong offers a trigger warning at the start of the show, which necessarily deals with “death, illness, poverty, mental health stressors, racism, trauma, the last U.S. president.” The mosaic of horrible news includes the murder of George Floyd, the rise of anti-maskers and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Disheartened by what the pandemic revealed about the nation, Wong repeatedly stops to ask, “Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy?” She doesn’t have an answer, but she exhorts us not to give up the fight.
This sanity-boosting recap of a horrendously difficult period is just what the doctor ordered. I’m readier than I might have been in 2021, when “Sweatshop Overlord” had its premiere at New York Theatre Workshop, to collectively process the recent traumatic cascade. (CTG, which presented a digital production of Wong’s looser show “Kristina Wong for Public Office” in the dark days of 2020, got the timing just right.)
A collaboration between Center Theatre Group and East West Players, with additional support from Skirball Cultural Center, this presentation of “Sweatshop Overlord” throws its arms around the audience in a compassionate embrace that tightens at moments into a firm shake. Factories are now able to supply better quality masks to meet the challenge of wilier new variants, but the communal work continues.
What was the motivation of Wong’s volunteers, some of whom were facing dire health and economic crises as they stitched love and protection for fellow Americans? A message was being sent to “broken systems” everywhere, Wong concludes, that human beings are “not expendable.”
‘Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 12. (Call for exceptions.)
Cost: $30-$79 (subject to change)
Running time: 1 hours, 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Info: (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org
COVID protocol: Check centertheatregroup.org/safety for current and updated information.
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