Kristina Wong’s one woman show explores COVID-19 pandemic, racism, poverty to varying effect
LA-based comedian Kristina Wong staged the Pacific Northwest premier of her newest one-woman show “Sweatshop Overlord” at Portland Center Stage in The Armory on Nov. 5. Two installations by local artists also made their debut in The Armory’s lower levels in conjunction with Wong’s Portland residency, which will run until Dec. 18.
“Sweatshop Overlord,” Wong’s third full-length theater piece, calls back to her life at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic during which Wong organized a steadily expanding network of volunteer seamstresses to sew and distribute masks via Facebook. As the show progresses through the early lockdowns, Wong’s network of volunteer seamstresses dubbed ‘Aunty Sewing Squad,’ and humorously shortened to A.S.S., becomes more and more of a support system for its members who are predominantly, like Wong herself, Asian American women.
Wong’s performance was staged in the Ellen Bye Studio, a black box theater located on the bottom floor of The Armory. Guests wandered down two stories of revolving staircases from the theatre’s ground floor lobby. Some paused on the first lower level, a circular room with exposed concrete walls, to investigate an exhibit of handcrafted face masks born out of a series of online workshops during the first year of lockdown centering on anti-racism called #MaskOutHate. Some were posted between glass panes against the room’s back wall while some, like textile artist Mohammed Murshed’s vibrant mandala mask, hung between glass in the center of the room.
The bottom level, which serves as a lobby for the black box, hosted an exhibit by Portland-based artist Wendi YuLing called “No New Normal.” One piece strung between painted hands was a patchwork of blue disposable masks, each with a note in black marker that answered the question “what rituals of care did you develop because of the pandemic?” Other marked disposable masks were primped in the middle and strung around the concrete wall.
Most guests failed to notice the massive quilt suspended against a corner wall as they filtered into the black box. During the show’s final act they learned that the Aunty Sewing Squad presented the quilt to Wong at their culminating picnic in the Bay Area in 2021.
The black box’s stage area is a small, floor-lit platform surrounded by seating on three sides. A larger than life roll of thread and classic tomato pin cushion serve as a table and chair at front stage right. Six foot long rolls of technicolor fabric and pastel USPS shipping boxes flank stage left. At center stage rests a small red Hello Kitty sewing machine on a short green and blue table surrounded by open shipping boxes and loose fabric. A small trophy holding a coronavirus particle over its head pokes out of a sky blue box.
With the house lights still on, Wong quietly emerges and sits down at her sewing machine. The packed room does not seem to notice. She pantomimes the production of a mask while the audience continues to chat amongst themselves.
The lights dim and extinguish the hum of the audience. Wong gets up from her sewing machine and welcomes the crowd with a land acknowledgement and a trigger warning.
“This show takes place in the pandemic,” Wong says. “I know. I know! Now you get to find out if watching live theater about the pandemic, during a pandemic, is your thing. And because it’s set in the pandemic, there are mentions of death, illness, poverty, mental health stressors, racism, trauma … the last U.S. president.”
Wong takes the audience back through 2020 in a tightly choreographed multimedia experience rich with costume changes, such as her neon guerrilla get-up complete with a bandoleer of thread reels wrapped around her torso.
As A.S.S. collects more and more mask-making Aunties, Wong remolds herself from out-of-work actor and comedian to intrepid leader and organizer- with a roar both triumphant and self-satirizing, she declares herself the ‘Sweatshop Overlord.’
At one point in the second act Wong steps onto her pin cushion seat as she delivers a ‘message to George Floyd.’ The jovial tone that characterized the show thus far darts into a somber earnestness unique to millennial culture. Wong personally apologizes to Floyd for his wrongful death at the hands of police violence- and that she cannot join the protests in his memory in her Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown for fear that any harm that might come to her could jeopardize A.S.S. and its mask making mission.
Perhaps this scene played better in its New York and Los Angeles previews. It certainly fell flat in the downtown Portland theater, which stands less than a mile from the Multnomah County Justice Center, the epicenter of local protests against police brutality in the Summer of 2020. Portland protests after George Floyd’s death made national headlines for high and prolonged turnout and excessive crowd control measures employed by the Portland Police Bureau and federal agents.
All in all, Wong presents an intricate and high-energy personal memoir in the 90-minute performance. She weaves together the past and present of the Asian American experience through the backdrop of the first year of the Pandemic as she employs knowledge handed down from her foremothers to “out-sew the Virus” in the face of anti-Asian prejudice.
“Sweatshop Overlord” will run at Portland Center Stage until December 18. After a brief hiatus, Wong will bring the show to Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in February 2023.