Risky pandemic-era art pays off in Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord at La Jolla Playhouse
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, October 7, 2022
I remember stitching masks at my home sewing machine, one after another. I tried pleats, the Olson pattern, two and three layers, and used headbands and shoelaces repurposed as elastic when it became impossible to source. I recall dropping off a large ziplock bag of hand-sewn masks at a nursing care facility near my home. Then I came home, fed a sourdough starter in a glass jar, tended greens in a home garden box, and left a gallon of milk on a neighbor’s doorstep. I remember the sharp sting of loss and the emptiness that followed when friends and loved ones were taken without the ability to say goodbye. Kristina Wong brought all of that back - and more - with her one woman show (and Pulitzer Prize finalist), Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, currently playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through October 16.
This production, which spans 504 days of the pandemic from March 12, 2020 through September 25th, 2021, is a tale of pivoting, perseverance, and unexpected community found in the face of fear and in spite of systemic racism. Under Kristina’s watch, the Auntie Sewing Squad, a Facebook group populated by 800 volunteers across 33 states, comes together as a “shadow FEMA” to fix what is broken - namely, the U.S. public healthcare system - all while navigating shelter in place orders and dismantling white supremacy.
As the production (which does not include an intermission) unfolds, news reels and photos are projected on a backdrop made of cloth masks, reminding us of George Floyd’s murder on television, the gender reveal party which set California ablaze, the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the presidential election and subsequent insurrection, Gamestop, and the Atlanta spa shootings. Kristina looks at Bezos’ rocket launch with disdain, nods patiently at anti vaxxers, and pulls at heartstrings with her declaration that we “are trying to fight to save a country that cannot be saved.” She solicits the audience for audible responses, gathers bras thrown onto set from attendees, and marches forward with energy and power. “Is America a Banana Republic disguised as a democracy?” she asks, and in the question, as presented through the play with varying levels of flippancy and trepidation, it is easy to see elements of truth.
In this work, Wong reinforces her brilliance as a performance artist who uses her voice to affect change. From the very top of the show, as she engages the audience with her banter and electric persona, she doesn’t hesitate to laugh at herself... but she is also not afraid to raise questions that matter. She celebrates the work that her organization (acronymized A.S.S. for short) does for the most vulnerable of communities: indigenous, border, unhoused, and sex workers, among others. She reminds the audience that there is nothing monolithic about Asian culture and condemns the hate directed towards the mask that she “cannot take off,” while elevating photographer Corky Lee for his refusal to “dismiss our work and our experience.” She puts on war gear and goes to battle, even when on curfew within the sanctity of her own home.
In her capable hands, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord becomes a tribute to Kristina's loved ones, to her ideals, and to her experience, and one which rings with truth. Despite wanting A.S.S. to “be expendable,” Wong laments, “we tried to make the problem go away, and the problem turned out to be systemic racism." Wong's perfectly timed and responsive levels of reaction (credit to director Chay Yew) result in us, as the audience, boarding the roller coaster of 2020-2021 all over again, feeling alternately hopeful and broken.
It is a risk to create a one-woman production about the pandemic, especially now as we continue to experience it (and the often outright denial that it has ever existed at all). And, in fact, every member of the audience carries the trauma of the events of those 504 days so, as she warns during the pre-show announcement, the show requires one huge trigger warning. The risk absolutely pays off.
On a side note, as an Asian American woman whose loved ones have witnessed systems of marginalization firsthand and an educator who bore the challenge of helping her student journalists navigate reporting about anti-Asian violence and xenophobia, I think this show, while risky, is important. By facilitating an opportunity for the audience to, at least to a small degree, walk in the footsteps of the author and witness her commitment to serving the underserved and helping the helpers, perhaps the narrative surrounding the pandemic and systemic racism can be shifted to highlight the impact on our most marginalized communities. I believe that this, the root of empathy, can grow into what is hopefully an impetus for change.
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord runs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m, at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays through October 16 at the Potiker Theatre of the La Jolla Playhouse. Tickets: LaJollaPlayhouse.org.