By Samuel L. Leiter. . .
Even a dunghill can produce flowers. If we consider the Covid pandemic a dunghill, we can also appreciate flowers sprouting from it, like Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord by and starring Kristina Wong. A California-based performance artist, a third-generation Chinese-American, she stepped up to the challenges presented by the pandemic when she realized the enormous need of our seriously ill-prepared nation for the masks we were being asked to wear to prevent spreading the disease.
In her compelling one-woman show at the New York Theatre Workshop (running through November 21), this phenomenally animated, forty-ish woman describes the remarkable journey she found herself taking when the pandemic shut the nation down and she was unable to pursue her performing career. Ms. Wong, living in LA’s Koreatown, used the time on her hands to put her sewing machine to work.
Ms. Wong is no shy puppy in the field of self-promotion, fortunately. No sooner than the world learned, via social media, of her PPE-making activity, than she was deluged with requests. So much so, in fact, that she developed a nearly nationwide network of volunteer mask-makers, including children, which she called the Auntie Sewing Squad (yes, ASS!), willing to offer their services. Eventually they created 350,000 masks over 540 days, intended mainly for first-responders and the like, before the manufacturing industry was producing enough to make her work unnecessary.
This is not simply the story of that particular accomplishment. It is a story, told with wide swathes of humor, of the medical, social, and political firestorm ignited by the pandemic. Well-pointed satirical daggers are flung toward not only the misguided millions of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, but also at our government’s ineptness in handling the crisis, not least of them the former president. It also sharpens its rapier-like satire on the January 6 insurrection and on racial issues, like BLM and the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. Several times she asks the audience if the United States isn’t some “banana republic.” And not a soul can so no.
Ms. Wong also makes sure we get to know something of herself, including her parents. Likewise, she takes considerable time to honor all those—particularly a woman who participated despite the illness that eventually killed her—who made sacrifices when the nation needed them. One of the more outrageous personal sequences, by the way, involves a vaginal cyst Ms. Wong developed. It’s represented in a simultaneously cringe-worthy and hilarious way I’ll leave for you to discover.
In a sense, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord encapsulates all of the past year and a half’s turmoil, somehow managing to cover an enormous amount of territory without being overwhelmed by it. Ms. Wong is a perfectly affable hostess, not only delivering her lines in a strong voice at Mach Speed but, under Chay Yew’s inventively high-spirited direction, moving about on a three-quarters-round thrust with so much physical activity—supported by Mihail Fiksel’s expert sound design—it would wear out lesser souls. Yet, even when she’s at her most politically snippy she maintains a good humor, sometimes even gently involving the audience in her shenanigans.
Admirable use is made of a screen showing numerous still and video projections (assembled by Caite Hevner) as she circumnavigates Junghyun Georgie Lee’s simple set, excellently lit by Amith Chandrashakar, surrounded by an array of props suggestive of a child’s playroom with oversized utensils, like a large red pincushion, huge scissors, and exaggerated spools. Beginning in a black jumpsuit, she takes on her mask-making mission with drill-sergeant zeal, her costume (designed by Linda Chō) transforming cleverly into comical, pink, Rambo-like military gear, a bandoleer of sewing spools, and a pair of XL-sized shears strapped across her back. She is, like the Maid of Orleans she invokes, a Joan of Arc for our times.
There surely are many other Covid-inspired plays in the pipeline, but—while I didn’t find this one quite as funny as did some of my colleagues—I can only applaud Ms. Wong to the skies for making sure she got everything else right about this first one. I doubt anything can be done to bring this show to all those Covid, mandate, mask, and vaxx deniers—Ms. Wong insists you mustn’t fight them with insults—but that doesn’t mean one still can’t fantasize about shoving it down their throats.
Photos: Joan Marcus