Kristina Wong is not invisible
The early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines brought total upheaval to life as we knew it. Alongside the tragedy unfolding around us, some of us spent the early days of the pandemic trying our hand at sewing cloth masks. Comedian, playwright, and performer Kristina Wong draws on those times in a new play. Named as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in theater, "Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord" is a solo show about the group of individuals Wong assembled across the country to make homemade masks to meet the urgent demand.
The play explores lockdowns, Asian American racism, Facebook groups, friendship, invisible labor and generosity.
Preview performances begin Tuesday, Sept. 20, at La Jolla Playhouse, and it officially opens on Saturday and runs through Oct. 16, 2022. Playwright, comedian and performer Kristina Wong spoke with KPBS Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans, their conversation below had been lightly edited for clarity.
This play was inspired by your own reality in the early days of the pandemic when masks were hard to come by. Can you walk us through what that time was like for you?
Wong: Yes. I was actually all set to tour another show called "Kristina Wong for Public Office." In that particular show, I spent years researching running for office and created this whole live rally that was going to tour up until the 2020 November election. Like, I'm shaking hands, I'm in people's faces, and suddenly I'm deemed non-essential, as all artists are, and I'm home in my underwear in Koreatown trying to figure out what to do because I was getting emails that shows are canceled, stay inside.
I sew my sets and props — that's sort of a signature of my work. I've never made medical equipment before, but I was tagged in an article saying that hospitals were looking for home-sewn masks. And I had this whole "aha" moment of: I'm going to sew masks. I'm going to become essential. I made a very naïve offer to Facebook and Instagram saying, If you need a mask and you're an essential worker or immunocompromised, let me help you — not realizing that everyone who's been avoiding seeing my shows for years would just come out of the darkness, find me and ask for a mask.
So I was overwhelmed with what seemed like a crazy number, like around 200 mask requests at that point, about four days in and was like, I need to get help. I can't do this by myself. And it's also just really hard to find materials right now because stores are closed and the stores that are open are sold out of elastic and cotton fabric. So I started a Facebook sewing group thinking, okay, this is just for three weeks until the cargo ships from China show up with masks and the government distributes these masks. I call the group "Aunties Sewing Squad." I name it in such a rush, I don't realize that our acronym is A-S-S.
And I end up having to lead this group. It's not like you just start a Facebook group and the masks just show up, but there's a lot of organizing and leadership that needs to happen. And it became clear this is not just hospitals, but there are these communities in rural areas, farm workers, indigenous communities that need these masks. So we ended up becoming a 17-month-effort, and we were doing everything from relief vans to the Navajo Nation, winter coat drives to the Lakota Reservation, sending a lot of supplies to the border, to migrants who are arriving. And we became a network of 800 volunteer aunties across 33 states. That's what I did during my pandemic. That's the story of this show.
At what point did you realize that you had to make theater out of that moment?
Wong: About one month into this, people kept saying, this is going to be your next show, isn't it? I'm like, we don't even know if there's ever going to be theater again. We don't even know if there's going to be civilization. This is the last thing I'm thinking about, is how to make this funny. But it became so clear that what I feel like we were witnessing was — it was the strangest war where instead of soldiers, I had a battalion of aunties. And instead of machine guns, we had sewing machines, and instead of bullets, we had fabric and thread and elastic, right? And it just felt like the things I was witnessing and that the other aunties were witnessing of this pandemic, from the proximity of being someone who we have these skills that were passed down that could save someone's lives, it was just sort of incredible.
But also, I think what I was witnessing was a very specific generosity. And I think for some people who couldn't understand that, that's why I wanted to make a show, is to really show them there's this moment in our history that was awful, but what I saw in this moment was this incredible generosity.
I have friendships with people — I've not even met them in person yet, but I feel so much love and respect for them because they were willing to basically put their own health at risk. Going to the post office, picking up materials, sewing into the night to protect people they'd never met before. And that sort of reality, that sort of invisible labor that is sewing, I really wanted to put meaning to.
And I also really wanted to show that in this moment where people are so angry at Asian Americans because they think that somehow we brought this virus here, that there are all these Asian Americans who are actually stepping up and trying to protect frontline workers, trying to keep this country safe. So for me, that's when it became very clear that there was probably a show here because we were living an experience that was very different than maybe a lot of people who were using the time to catch up on Netflix or going through divorces — some of our Aunties went through divorces. But it just was so specific and so worth sharing.
This is a play that's also about family, particularly women. What did you want to explore with those relationships and friendships — and these generational bonds when it comes to skills like this, like sewing?
Wong: I think when we think of heroes or we think of people who are out to protect us, we think like big, strong, burly men with guns. And there is all this caretaking that happens among aunties. And to me, I love the term auntie, at least at this age in my life, because I don't have children, I'm not married, and it sure beats words like spinster or old maid to be called auntie by people. It's a term of respect. And that was sort of the gift of naming this group in a rush "Auntie Sewing Squad" — is there was so much pride in being called an auntie and so much of a sweetness, I could order people around, go "Aunties, I need you to sew faster. Please, aunties," versus "Hey, volunteers, keep sewing," right? There's something much sweeter and familial about that.
And these are the years of the pandemic, that these are the last of my fertile years. And it became clear like, oh, I'm not going to have children, at least biological children. And that's it. This is it. But what I really learned was I have this family, I have relationships that are close and meaningful in ways that I don't think I need a biological family to have. I really learned connection in this way. I still don't even know what half the aunties do for a living. And I think that's incredible because when you live in Los Angeles, you usually meet people based on what their career is first. And so it was so incredible to meet people on the level of what they had to give.
It's widely believed that messaging from former President Donald Trump led to waves of racism, hate crimes, violence towards Asian Americans, like specifically his use of the term "China virus." I'm wondering how you approach this in the play.
Wong: So here's this terrible irony, exactly one year from when we started sewing masks, March 2020 to March 2021, the Atlanta Spa massacre happened. And it went from aunties were protecting the world with masks to we were then distributing self-defense weapons to the Asian aunties. We usually had care items like baked goods and things like this. And suddenly we're distributing kubotans, hand alarms, and sharing links to self defense classes on Zoom. And it felt like, okay, the pandemic might be subsiding, but this racial pandemic is not. And we're sort of left in the aftermath of finding a way, of having to forge a new sense of protection. So that's sort of one arc that I go through in it. And this sort of terrible irony of having to go from defender to defendee.
But for me, this show is also that defense, right? Because I feel like Asian Americans are so invisible and this labor is so invisible. And the way people would regard our labor. For the most part, people were very grateful for our sewing, but there are moments where people would talk to us like we were just Amazon Prime, like, I want 20 masks that looks like this. And I'm like, "We're in a pandemic. Stores are not open. I cannot customize masks for you right now. I don't do this professionally." And there are interactions we had that were so transactional.
And I feel like so much of me wanting to do the show was to put a face on this labor. And really show just how hard this was, not because we're more important than anybody else, but I think that it's important in this moment to understand that we weren't just sitting on our hands and doing nothing. Here's where a lot of Asian Americans were stepping up.