Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord

ACT Presents an Award Winning Autobiographical Pandemic Experience

By: - Apr 05, 2024

Readers of this review no doubt prefer to know something about a play before committing to see it.  So do I under most circumstances.  In this case, the script of “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the play won Outer Critics Circle, Lucille Lortel, and Drama Desk Awards for solo performance on its off-Broadway run.  What more do you need to know?

Well, much to my surprise, the play is not about exploitive labor practices by the garment industry in Asia and elsewhere.  Instead, it is the playwright/actor’s autobiography of her time during the Covid pandemic.  While the topic was unexpected, the quality of the script is not, given its well-deserved kudos.  Delivered with passion, pathos, and humor, Kristina Wong’s performance crackles, sparkles, and pops.  Its message of caring and contributing, even in a small way and to beneficiaries unknown, resonates deeply.

Starting in March, 2020, and particularly during the period of shelter-in-place orders, most of us simply retreated into our cocoons.  Through selective amnesia, many of us have already suppressed memories of how frightening that period was, with brave medical people losing their lives in droves and ultimately, over one million Americans dying from the disease.

Like other Asian-American women, Kristina Wong had been taught to play it safe, keep her head down to avoid challenging authority, to cook, and to sew.  This last skill would be put to use to help fend off the pandemic.  In the early days, the medical community identified masking as key to reducing Covid transmission, but supply of masks woefully failed to meet demand.

Wong’s performance art was involuntarily placed on a hard pause, leading her to question her decision to forego family building for her career.  Otherwise unengaged, and having been conditioned to live in the shadow of failure, she nonetheless decided to sew and distribute cloth masks and then to enlist others to support the cause.

Social media and electronic meeting technology were among the rare positive byproducts of social isolation during the pandemic.  Through technology and friendship snowballing, Wong was able to build a cadre of hundreds of volunteers donating many thousands of masks to those in need.  In the Asian tradition, these mostly older and mostly Asian women became her aunties.  She dubbed the collective as the Auntie Sewing Squad, and yes, she knew the resulting acronym.  Wong introduces us to some of the aunties and shares the challenges they confronted and how they soldiered on, overcoming issues concerning cloth, elastic banding, mailing, and more.

On a set with big, brightly colored items evoking a day care rumpus room, Wong regales and engages the audience with her experiences.  She prowls the stage with grand gestures and high energy, breaking the fourth wall to directly engage with the audience.  But her emotion of despair swells when she speaks of the dark forces of antagonism and ignorance.  One wonders how she can summon and enact these very personal experiences night after night, but her conviction powers her through her unflinching performance.

This is not an unstaged, solemn, static, stand-and-deliver exercise like Will Rogers spinning yarns or Harry Truman giving ‘em hell.  Chay Yew’s direction gives the depth of production usually seen in fully-staged plays rather than solo performances.  In addition to Junghyun Georgia Lee’s simple but well-suited scenic design, Amith Chandrashaker’s sharp and varied lighting gives a dramatic look, while Caite Hevner’s projections give not-all-too-happy visual reminders of this recent past.  Mikhail Fiksel and Adam Salberg’s bombastic sound punctuates the lively events effectively. If there is any weakness in the production, it would be that it plays on the long side for a solo performance.

To conclude that “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” only stands as a self-congratulatory tribute would be mistaken.  The two-tiered narrative switches between personal and societal commentary, with the latter being haunted by her assailing society’s failures.  Those readers who fall into the correlated factions of anti-masking, anti-vax, anti-science, racist, conspiracy theory, pathological lying, and culture wars promoters (read – collectively, socio-political conservatives) may not wish to read on.

The show sadly recounts the many tragic events that occurred during the pandemic, from George Floyd’s killing to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.  The sad ignorance of some people and the pernicious promotion of anti-vax, anti-masking sentiment as a political wedge issue undermined the work of Wong and multitudes of others who sought to help humanity, irrespective of political persuasion.  Worse, lies about masking and vaccination caused the deaths of many thousands of people.

Understandably, the most personal of the fractious issues was the cynical finger pointing at China for the Covid outbreak.  Savagely referring to the disease by names like kung flu and Chinese Covid gave rise to intolerable threats and worse to all Asians, especially by those with white supremacist leanings.  To express what the playwright only implies, the political party with conservative bent, Republicans, failed to repudiate this and other extremism, fanning the flames of division and risking to douse the light of American democracy as we know it.

“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” written by Kristina Wong, is produced by American Conservatory Theater and plays on its Strand Theater stage, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through May 5, 2024.