Comedian Kristina Wong weaves theater from social change

Comedian Kristina Wong weaves theater from social change
Comedian Kristina Wong weaves theater from social change

Elected, performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong takes more than just the main stage at ASU with her work in social change, her artistic residency and, of course, her autobiographical solo show, “Kristina Wong for Public Office.”

Wong is an elected representative of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles. The show satirizes a version of Wong campaigning for office, drawing influence from the performative political campaigns of the 2016 presidential election, church revivals and party rallies.

“It almost feels like we’re in a place where politicians and artists have switched jobs, and artists are now the ones reclaiming the space for social change in truth,” Wong said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she started a Facebook group for volunteer help called Auntie Sewing Squad. Cheekily abbreviated to “ASS,” the group materialized into a community of mostly Asian women—aunties—who know how to sew.

Led by Wong, ASS sewed over 350,000 masks from old clothes in 15 months through the shutdown, distributing them to communities across the country; among them the Navajo Nation—a demographic that was disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Wong began writing and performing autobiographical theater in college when she found it therapeutic.

“Presenting (autobiographical work) was much more interesting to me than writing about people who didn’t exist, and was much more liberating emotionally,” Wong said.

She turned her experience leading her volunteer group into a show. Titled “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” the show showcases Wong’s volunteer efforts during the pandemic.

“It felt like a war movie,” Wong said. “Not the blood and carnage, but the disillusionment of strategizing and fighting a real threat.”

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When live theater resumed in late 2021, the New York Theater Workshop — home of Tony-winning musicals such as “Rent” and “Hadestown” — approached Wong about hosting the live premiere of “Sweatshop Overlord” as part of its reopening season.

The production was critically acclaimed, won several awards and was named a 2022 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Drama.

Soon after, Wong was announced as artist-in-residence at ASU Gammage.

She works with the Pitchfork Pantry at ASU, and is interested in destigmatizing food assistance programs. She collaborates with ASU students as part of her residency, and hosted a talkback with students about her work on Multicultural Communities of Excellence.

“Whether you’re walking down the street, you’re in the grocery store; people are reading you, so I feel like the only way to spread or make a show about yourself is to first spread what everyone sees,” Wong said.

“And I think this is especially true for people with marginalized bodies,” she told students.

Wong also taught a solo performance master class to ASU theater students about creating their own pre-show disclaimers and finding personal ways to connect to the performance space around them.

Pre-show disclaimers prepare an audience for the content they are about to see, while also offering a veil of protection for the solo artist against assumptions that may stem from their identity.

Toby Yatso, an assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, hosts many such master classes for performing and resident artists at ASU.

“Kristina was the most interactive artist we’ve had as part of the masterclass sessions,” said Yatso. “These are held to offer performing arts students perspective, truths and lots of inspiration. She was so lovely in the way that it was so engaging and participatory.”

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Yatso’s students, who themselves work on solo performance cabarets as part of the semester, were initially hesitant to open up completely, but Wong’s approach helped them.

Andy Chen, a graduate student studying performance with a focus on conducting, was part of the class.

“Kristina was an inspiring presence to have in the room, not only because of all the history and rich artistic life she brought, but for how she treated everyone in that room with equally worthy things to share,” Chen said. “You couldn’t leave that room without feeling more empowered as an artist.”

“Developing work is inherently breaking the conventions of theatre-going,” Yatso said. “You have to teach the audience how to receive your play, because the conventions are not there to help you and save you, then you break those conventions.”

In February, Wong received the Doris Duke Award, a $550,000 award given to individual performing artists. Wong continues to break convention, working closely with indigenous communities in Arizona as she deconstructs food banks for her next show.

“I’m going through a lot of questions in my head right now. Yeah, you can make a food bank cool, but why do we have a food bank in the first place in this rich, powerful country in the world? is this coming to middle-class families now?” Wong said.

“That’s kind of the stuff I’m exploring. But a lot of it just started from my joy of going to this one food bank and sharing joy with all the aunties. Now I’m going — ‘oh my god, what is this show? Premiere in two years? Oh, shit. Right. Yeah.'”

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Kristina Wong will perform “Kristina Wong for Public Office” at ASU Gammage on March 18 at 19.00

Edited by Claire van Doren, Reagan Priest, Sophia Balasubramanian and Grace Copperthite.

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