Home News For SF native Kristina Wong, Covid project becomes a hit comedy show

For SF native Kristina Wong, Covid project becomes a hit comedy show


For SF native Kristina Wong, Covid project becomes a hit comedy show

When the going gets tough, the tough get sewing.

That may be the lesson of “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” the acclaimed solo show now playing at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater.

When the COVID-19 shutdown came in March 2020, comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong was touring with “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” her show recounting her successful campaign for neighborhood council in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

Her tour suddenly cut short, Wong started sewing much-needed homemade masks to help fill the shortage, and soon recruited friends from all over to pitch in as well.

“The thing that I had fought to do my whole life, which is make theater and solo performance, was now something that could potentially infect and kill all my audience members,” Wong recalls.

“I had seen this article saying that hospitals were looking for home-sewn masks, and I had my little aha Joan of Arc moment where I was like, this is how I become essential. I made a very naive offer to the internet saying, ‘If you’re immunocompromised or if you don’t have access to masks, I can make you a mask,’ not realizing that was pretty much everybody in that first week of the pandemic. The first mask I sewed was on March 20, and then four days later I started a Facebook group because I needed help with all these requests that I kept saying yes to.”

She called the group the Auntie Sewing Squad, whose cheeky acronym only occurred to her after the fact. The squad soon swelled to 800 aunties, sewing and delivering hundreds of thousands of homemade masks to communities in need, as discussed in the 2021 University of California Press book “The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice.”

“I decided to add people to the group who I knew were sewing as well, and a lot of them happened to be Asian women,” Wong says. “I pulled my mother into the group, and my mother pulled her friends into the group. There was an exchange between two aunties in the group, one who’s Korean and one who’s Chinese. They both had mothers who were garment workers, and they were comparing memories of what this was bringing up for them, because they used to help their mothers with piecework. If I look back at why it is that most of these volunteers knew how to sew, it’s because it was a survival skill that they had picked up as immigrants when they came here.”

A San Francisco native, Wong says her grandparents were Chinese immigrants who had a laundry business in the Richmond District.

“Here we are replicating this labor that our grandparents and parents did with pretty much the intention that we would never have to do that ourselves,” Wong says. “I was like, oh my God, so many of my volunteers are Asian, and I’m ordering them around. I’ve become the sweatshop overlord.”

Wong took on the persona of a cruel overlord to entertain the many volunteers.

“It was this strange gallows humor joke to reflect on the situation that the most powerful country in the world had put us in,” she says.

Her current solo show began as a sort of video diary created while sheltering in place.

“I started working on the show on Zoom in the pandemic, thinking that we would never return back to civilization,” Wong says. “I just basically wrote up until the moment we were at that day. The show would end with for example, ‘day 180,’ in parentheses ‘today.’ And then I would stand on my bed and bow. We’d do a Q&A, and all the aunties who are sewing remotely from their homes turned their cameras on. Because basically I was just entertaining them. You can’t just tell people to sew and expect them to sew and not lose morale. It was like they were hearing our origin story over and over again through me in my house while they were making masks.”

The show’s live premiere at New York Theatre Workshop in late 2021 was Wong’s first in-person performance since all this began. The show went on to win Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards and was one of two finalists for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“I now feel like it’s this really incredible document to this community that I helped create, and it gives a glimmer of the generosity and the care that was possible in these unimaginable circumstances that none of us would’ve thought we would’ve been in,” Wong says. “It was just such an absurd moment where we were cutting up our bedsheets to keep nurses alive. We’re the most powerful country in the world, and we were so not equipped for this moment. And a simple piece of cloth and someone who remembered how to sew from their Home Ec class could be the difference between life or death.”

For a San Francisco kid who’s been living in L.A. for decades, bringing the show to ACT is like a prize all on its own.

“I did one season with the Young People’s Teen Musical Theater Company, and ACT was always this gold standard of theater to me,” Wong says. “So this feels like a beautiful full-circle moment. Also we have such a hub of aunties in the Bay Area who all sewed and became very close, and a bunch of them will come. Whenever I tour the show in whatever city, the aunties who live nearby will come by, and that’s usually the first time I get to meet them in person.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.


Written and performed by Kristina Wong, presented by American Conservatory Theater

Through: May 5

Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco

Tickets: $25-$137; www.act-sf.org


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