When I conceived of the Theatre Journal special issue on Minor Asias, artist Kristina Wong came immediately to mind because of work she had done in Uganda and her embodied political performance as an elected official in Los Angeles. Then COVID-19 and the latest wave of Black Lives Matter protests delayed the interview, and in the interim Wong started the Auntie Sewing Squad, which sewed thousands of masks for communities in need. In the wake of all these events, Kristina and I reconnected to discuss the links of politics and performance and the transversal relationships between different minoritarian communities.

A third-generation Chinese American raised in San Francisco, Kristina is a performance artist, comedian, writer, and elected representative who has been presented internationally across North America, the UK, Hong Kong, and Africa. She has been a guest on late-night television shows and an actor in film and in television. Her work has been awarded numerous grants, including the Center Theatre Group’s 2019 Sherwood Award for her contribution to the Los Angeles theatre landscape and her work as an innovative and adventurous artist. She has created viral web series like How Not to Pick Up Asian Chicks, and she just launched the second season of the award-winning Radical Cram School. Her rap career in post-conflict northern Uganda is the subject of her last solo theatre show, which toured the United States, Canada, and Lagos, Nigeria (presented by the US Consulate). Her long-running show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest looks at the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women and is now a concert film. Her newest performance project is Kristina Wong for Public Office, a simultaneous real-life stint in public office and show. In her most blurry performance piece yet, Kristina currently serves as the elected representative of Wilshire Center Koreatown Sub-district 5 Neighborhood Council[End Page E-9] 

SM:

I have been thinking about lateral relationships among different minoritarian groups and how those can contest or reify hegemony. In this vein, your work was featured this past March in Image Movers, the film festival for the fiftieth anniversary of the UCLA Center for Asian American Studies. Could you discuss selections from your oeuvre that were included in that festival and what was left out?

KW:

It was in the before times [before COVID-19 and George Floyd’s killing] that this event happened. A few episodes of Radical Cram School were peppered throughout the festival from our second season. And I did sort of an updated performance of Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And then we showed ten to fifteen minutes from the concert film that was shot in 2008.

SM:

I just wanted to start with that event partly because it was so emotive. You started that show almost fifteen years ago, I think.

KW:

I premiered Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 2006. It was about a year and a half before that when I decided to make this show about mental health. I don’t even think that the show was in a place that I could perform it without completely injuring myself [emotionally] until at least a year and a half on the road, just kind of getting it down to a performance and not a ritual with no end. (Fig. 1.)

SM:

I think that was your first big touring production. Is that correct?

KW:

Yes. I had a couple shows before that. But Cuckoo’s Nest felt like a show with a beginning, middle, end; it felt like the most developed thing I’d ever written. And it very much became my identity because I was so obsessed with touring it and making the world see it to the point that I wasn’t sure how to move on. I guess when you ask what wasn’t shown in the Image Movers festival, it was the three shows that I had made up until now to kind of get out of that. Those shows were Going Green the Wong Way, which is about all my failures and sustainable living, which includes running a car on vegetable oil; a show called Cat Lady, which was my foray into ensemble work. And that emerged out of my exhaustion of touring Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was touring the same show over and over again and again. I felt like Peter Pan, and I began to wonder if I would ever be able to outgrow this show when I simultaneously became interested in a subculture of Asian pickup artists who are very much performers. They’re taught how to perform manhood. They’re taught how to do what they call “sets” to pick up women, with openers and closers. And I was just sort of like really fascinated by how those men had taken to that subculture and found an identity in it. But I didn’t know how to exit that either. So that was that show Cat Lady. Then I went to Africa because I was just so fucking lost. And that was The Wong Street Journal. And that actually taught me a lot about how I want to proceed from here forward with my work. I don’t want so much to mine my pain and my past as much as learning something totally new in the future. And so I went to Uganda guilty of needing an “eat, pray, love” moment, but also to volunteer for a microloan organization and just have that rite of passage that I felt like most college-aged American kids have, which is go do Peace Corps or something, except at that point I was doing it at thirty-five. I [End Page E-10] 

Figure 1. Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Photo: Vince Tanzili.)

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ended up making a rap album with local rappers. Which sounds really kind of fun and romantic and whatever. But it was actually just kind of a mess to figure out how I, as someone who has kind of conveniently hid in the shadows of being Asian American and not had to confront anti-blackness and that kind of stuff as much as white people do, how much I was carrying the legacy of colonialism with me. I had the potential to be—despite my most well-meaning intentions—very destructive to the communities I was meeting in Uganda. So that was that show. And now I’ve run for office. And I serve as an elected official in Koreatown, a very small position. And that show is Kristina Wong for Public Office, which is on hold because of the pandemic. So those are all things that weren’t shown—it was all sort of the aftermath of the show, which for a long time just became my identity. (Fig. 2.)

SM:

One of the things I think is really interesting about your trajectory is the addition of Radical Cram School . . .

KW:

So that’s also a very different timeline, because when you’re making for the web, you just kind of produce it quickly. And the danger, which is what I witnessed when I started getting trolled by right-wingers and [far-right American radio show host] Alex Jones was you don’t have the time and the personal interface that you do in live theatre when you’re sitting there for an hour and a half, really kind of going through a story with someone. Another case in point is the music videos I made in Uganda. I was just dragged down by this scholar, and everyone got upset because they’re like “she’s just being as problematic as a white woman, blah, blah, blah.” But you have to see The Wong Street Journal in full. I don’t know how much nuance you’re going to be able to find on the internet.

Radical Cram Schoolhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5TFcvB-kZg

SM:

Both Radical Cram School and The Wong Street Journal push intersectionality. Could you talk about how you think about that issue. . . the way that Radical Cram School invokes different kinds of racial icons and history is really compelling.

KW:

We wanted to communicate to these kids, these Asian American kids, how to participate in social justice. A lot of it is about being an ally to existing work that is being done by black and brown activists. It’s a very tricky line to ride, especially when you’re making something visually engaging for an internet viewer, like making the choice of putting berets on kids and fists up. These are the visual choices we make in this series that make this fun for an adult audience to watch, to see kids do adult things. But also not just to make it a joke and not ride on the backs of the actual work and labor done by black and brown activists. It’s quite a negotiation.

These right-wingers had such a hard time with the project; they see Asian kids in berets and they think “communists,” or they think Asian kids learning to question white power. This is unacceptable, because they are used to having control over Asian people and not hearing from us at all. . . . What you don’t see is a lot of these longer discussions that kids are having that got edited out, but also just moments where [End Page E-12] they just don’t know what to say. They’re just floored by the information and quietly taking it in. So the second season, we’re just trying to find more embodied ways to explore social justice . . .

The iconography was very intentional. We have Mia Yamamoto, the first transgender civil rights attorney who was also born in an internment camp. If you look carefully, she’s sitting in a big Wicker Peacock chair, which is the same chair Huey Newton of the Black Panthers sits in. It’s a very subtle thing. But I was obsessed with this one detail: Mia sitting in a wicker chair, in a wicker throne. But I also had questions about this visual choice: is this ripping off the Black Panthers? Is that not cool? I constantly have to question that, because I do acknowledge as an Asian American that my body is not at the same kind of risk for violence as a black and brown body. For me to sort of borrow visually from that culture of black activism, it rides a line, right?

How to Pick Up Asian Chickshttps://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPW9Ncg5SLWTCzHYPKPhc0TCADcdhzxo5

Figure 2. Kristina Wong for Public Office. (Photo: Larry Sandez.)

 

SM:

It looks from the outside that the semiotics of protest are embedded in the mise en scène, the costumes, the whole gestural vocabulary. That is partly why I like it so much. What happens to kids when they are put in those things? Part of the theatricality is that they become without even knowing that they are becoming; having this kind of protest without even being necessarily cognizant of what they are doing, which I thought was great. [End Page E-13] 

KW:

It’s a lot of just trying to show kids, Asian kids, Asian American kids that you can be part of these revolutionary movements.

SM:

The reactivation of Black Lives Matter coincides with a lot of work that you have been doing to think about exchanges between different groups. Could you talk a little bit about how this particular historical moment is making you think about either the reception or production of your work differently?

KW:

I really was starting to think about intersectionality after Trayvon. Trayvon Martin was murdered right before I left for Uganda. I was writing a few essays for xoJane, just about naïve white people and their white privilege. Then after I came back from Uganda, I realized I had to confront how I talked about this as an Asian American. I just remember trying to work on writing The Wong Street Journal and going, “Oh, my God, I have no idea how to write about my own naiveté.” How are you supposed to make any kind of art where you cop to your embedded racism without the internet taking you down? (Fig. 3.) It just feels like a witch hunt where the only way to avoid being called a racist is to find someone else to call a racist . . . I was getting called out while I was in Uganda for being problematic. I didn’t think I would get back on a flight to America and pretend that this reality of witnessing didn’t exist. I’ve learned that if you’re going to present naiveté, you have to frame this with “I understand what racism is. I understand this is what white privilege is.” You kind of have to show those cards first and then go, “OK, I was wrong,” instead of just assuming everyone’s on the same page as me. Both The Wong Street Journal and Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest start with a twenty-minute preface where I teach the audience how to watch the show . . .

I’ve been thinking about these issues since the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement. How do we get beyond just calling out? What are the actual actions? I decided I should start putting my labor into the communities that are black. So I did a project, because people were like “Why did you go all the way to Uganda to do a show exploring poverty?” And I agreed. The process also involved thinking about where my money goes and how, if I am going to earn money from The Wong Street Journal, does this go in my pocket? It should go back to the communities that helped me that were in the story. I did a lot of work using the money that I earned from that show, putting it back into the producer Nerio Badman, who recorded my album, and into the microloan organization that I supported in the show.

SM:

And that information is in the show, right? I remember that.

KW:

Yes, it surfaces a little and in the Q&A. I think it’s hard with a one-person show, because I mean the best way to have done it would be to fly in all the people I’ve met and have them do the show with me. It’s tricky because it’s not something I really—I don’t want to go that far, I guess, because ultimately I’m still the artist creating a solo work. So I have to talk a lot in the Q&A. I did host Bukenya Muusa, founder of the microloan organization VACNET, when he was in California doing visits and created opportunities for people to get to know and support his organization. [End Page E-14] 

Figure 3. The Wong Street Journal. (Photo: Jen Cleary.)

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SM:

There is a lot of discussion publicly right now about how to be an ally and what it means to support Black Lives Matter. It seems to me that throughout the last several years of your career, you have been doing that kind of work in a lot of very visceral ways. You have been trying to work through so much of the stuff that people are agonizing about right now.

KW:

I am having a moment where I look around me and everyone’s like, oh my gosh, oh wow—it feels like me three years ago. Except they’re not all trying to figure out how to write a show about Uganda. I keep thinking about that now. And it’s lent itself towards this work that I’m doing with the Auntie Sewing Squad, which never started out to be a women of color–led group supporting a lot of queer, trans, nonbinary women of color sewing people . . . it wasn’t even intended to be this political. It was supposed to be a two-week stopgap where Kristina was going to sew a few masks for some nurses and some grocery-store workers who asked for them. And now we are over three months into this process. We have a logo. We may have a book deal. We have been doing relief missions to the Navajo Nation. I feel like the work I’ve been doing to this point has helped me think about how political all work is. Mask-making groups and masks right now are the most politically polarizing thing. There are many vulnerable groups that can’t easily find us online to ask for masks. So we sent out what we call “Super Aunties” to look at farmworkers, undocumented folks, and First Nations or Indigenous communities to see if we could support them with masks—all these communities that are mostly of color that were already left behind by the federal government.

The federal government would be fine if they just died, honestly, to the point that it’s sort of escalated to us sending sewing supplies to a group of Navajo and Hopi seamstresses, then realizing this van of stuff from the garment district had all this room. So we put in all these hygiene supplies that they needed, and then that became four relief-van missions. (Fig. 4.)

I don’t know if it’s because there’s so many women of color leading the group, but we are very forward-leaning with our politics. We had a day of solidarity for Black Lives Matter, and we said of that day, “please sew for intention, please sew for some of the Black Lives organizations that we are working with to give them masks, please know and remember that when we sew, we are sewing for communities that have been left––that have [borne] the brunt of systemic and racial violence for centuries.” I mean, really, that’s what all these communities have in common that are left right now without masks.

SM:

You actually anticipated a lot of my questions about the relationship between performance and politics. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?

KW:

The opportunity I’m witnessing in terms of theatre-making is that in theory we can be freer. If a performance artist can be making medical equipment and doing the work of the government, both as an elected official but also facilitating these insane relief vans, I know everything is so possible. It’s making me kind of look at how adaptive these “roles” that we supposedly play actually are. [End Page E-16] 

Figure 4. Auntie Sewing Squad. (Photo: Kristina Wong.)

 

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