'Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord' stitches pandemic masks with acerbic wit
What did you do when the pandemic hit? Comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong rallied together a group of “Aunties” on Facebook to sew masks for underserved populations who needed them to avoid dying of COVID.
That altruistic yet harrowing experience became the basis for her acerbically witty one-woman show, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” co-produced with East West Players and continuing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through March 12.
In her 90-minute high energy performance, Wong efficiently weaves together many narrative threads—an inspirational story of camaraderie under warlike conditions; a didactic plea to help the marginalized; a history of hate against Asian Americans (the “mask” she can’t remove); overt criticism of politics during the November 2020 election, the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection and antivaxx protesting that spring; and even her own vaginal happenings and reproductive ambivalence as a woman in her 40s.
Through it all, Wong physically storms and rolls about the stage in Rambo-like siege mode—at one point doing bicycle kicks on her back—the bright set (designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee) featuring a Hello Kitty sewing machine, postal boxes to mail masks, giant pincushions, and a backdrop made of masks on which to project photos of Aunties and news clips.
The performance thus offers a lot of bang for the buck, which might earn it an Auntie stamp of approval, based on Wong’s description of Asian values. Also for how there is sex talk but “No Titillation!” in the show, as we are periodically reminded.
Worry, guilt and badass sewing skills are her other inheritances, Wong says—all of which she puts to good use in her reenactment of March 2020, when COVID-19 causes her so much sheer panic she forgets to wear a sanitary pad.
There is no “fourth wall” protecting the audience either. House lights remain at least dimly lit most of the time as Wong asks audience members for their bra straps when elastic runs short, shoots masks at them with guns and divides them into two groups—vaccinated and antivax—asking the former to make babytalk assurances to the latter to get them to take their shots.
Wong’s unbridled passion roils through her performance like waves slamming into the audience, almost as a way to pound into them that bigotry against Asians is real and hurts, that not wearing a mask and not getting vaccinated kills, that America seems to be devolving into a “banana republic” and that serving the underserved as she and the Aunties do—including, as she mentions several times, Indigenous communities, migrants at the border, farmworkers, prisoners, the homeless and even first responders—is a no-brainer.
But there is humor as well. For starters, Wong’s “sweatshop”—comprised of women accomplished in many other ways besides needle skills—is called the Auntie Sewing Squad, or ASS. And Wong’s delivery is expressive, sharp and often laugh-out-loud funny as she runs around with her phone and tablet coordinating her “shadow FEMA” group.
Wong’s squad of hundreds of volunteers produced more than 300,000 face coverings over 17 months for those in need, until widespread vaccinations and a glut of masks allowed them to rest. She documented her experience on Zoom during the pandemic and began performing the show for live audiences beginning in late 2021, directed by Chay Yew.
The play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama in 2022 and Wong received an artist prize of $550,000 from the Doris Duke Foundation on Feb. 13, days before the current production’s opening night.
“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” showcases the tour de force that is Kristina Wong—her unflagging energy, unabashed playfulness, honest emotion and willingness to put herself (and, yes, stuff about her vagina) out there for others—thereby opening the audience’s eyes to what they might not see otherwise.
While the show may not alleviate your lingering pandemic trauma—which Wong gives trigger warnings about at the beginning—its punch might jumpstart your own processing of what the hell happened in 2020. Like Wong, you might even consider helping others as a way to heal.
“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” continues at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, through March 12, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $79 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting CenterTheatreGroup.org. Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Masks are strongly encouraged.