'Kristina Wong: Sweatshop Overlord' — an inspiring agit-pop monologue at the Strand

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday April 9, 2024
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Kristina Wong in her solo show, 'Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord' (photo: Kevin Berne)
Kristina Wong in her solo show, 'Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord' (photo: Kevin Berne)

Offered a time machine ride that could only take you back four years, you might be inclined to shrug off the opportunity.

But in "Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord," the titular, jocular, Inner Sunset-raised performance artist's latest solo show, now playing at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, that short hop feels shockingly epochal.

Wong recounts the origins and evolution of the Auntie Sewing Squad, a nationwide alliance of primarily female volunteer mask-makers she spearheaded as a way to generate both solidarity and self-empowerment in the face of the coronavirus and its societal reverberations.

Her funny, loose-jointed agit-pop monologue offers plenty of worthy and touching — if unsurprising — takes on Trumpism, racism, community building, and cross-generational rapprochement.

But its most powerful impact comes from plunging audiences back into the morass of the COVID-19 pandemic: The show delivers an unnerving reminder of how coolly and quickly we're encouraged to move along these days, trained by media and politicians to process and discard trauma at 5G speeds.

Wong, who opens the show in neutral coveralls but soon transforms into a bare-shouldered Day-Glo social justice Rambo (The costumes are by Linda Cho; the clever flipping of anti-Asian Stallone machismo into humane generosity is classic Wong), summons up the nerve-shredding early days of the coronavirus' scourge.

Sharing well-honed anecdotes amid a soundscape of alternating sirens and silence (by Mikhail Fiksel and Adam Salberg), she elicits powerful sense memories of the frustration, anxiety, alienation, and helplessness that swept over us beginning in the spring of 2020.

They hit as a surprise, "Oh, wow, that was just a minute ago!" reminders of a time at once recent and ancient. It's creepy and alarming how easily we can lose track of ourselves.

The fact that Wong actively did something in response to the pandemic rather than passively allow it to wash over her in waves of cable news and sweatpantsed indolence gave her a better, stronger sense of herself and her agency.

Kristina Wong in her solo show, 'Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord' (photo: Kevin Berne)  

Expanding corps
In turn, she shared that sensibility with friends, family, and an organically expanding corps of folks who, yes, made masks, but more importantly made meaning for themselves during a crisis that was existential as well as medical. (Those masks — sewn from bra straps and fabric scraps — likely had much more value as totems than PPE).

The entire show is a grand extension of the sewing circle that inspired it. Attempting to create value in the face of the world's challenges, trying to make sense to make progress, asserting the self in the hope of connecting with others, has long been Wong's project. She doesn't just give performances; she models beneficent behavior.

Her stitching together of art and activism in earlier shows, including "The Wong Street Journal" (seen at Z Space in 2015), has reached an apotheosis in "Kristina Wong for Public Office" (Wong actually served as an elected representative in Los Angeles) and "Sweatshop Overlord."

There's occasionally a patchwork quality to Wong's hybrid form. At one point during "Sweatshop Overlord," she shares a moving tribute to Corky Lee, a friend and mentor who was a pioneering documentary photographer of Asian-American lives (It made me want to see a whole show just about him).

At another she does jokey riffs on a minor medical problem, visually representing it with a balloon attached to her inner thigh. The tones and textures of these segments are as far afield as you could imagine.

And yet, thanks to this writer-performer's highly personal vision and magnanimous magpie sensibility, they come together into something that feels so right; so Wong.

'Kristina Wong: Sweatshop Overlord,' through May 5. $25-$81. A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. (415) 749-2228. www.act-sf.org

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