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Theatre in Review: Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord (New York Theatre Workshop)

Kristina Wong. Photo: Joan Marcus

I've been living in dread of an onslaught of COVID plays, imagining all sorts of dreary two-handers featuring locked-down couples laboriously working out their relationship issues. (It could happen yet.) Therefore, it is a special delight to report that this solo show unexpectedly -- one might say astoundingly -- finds considerable hilarity in the trauma of the pandemic, along a with a large helping of hope and some pointed sociopolitical commentary. Clearly, sweatshop overlords know what they want and how to get it.

Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord begins with Wong, a performance artist and third-generation Chinese American, onstage at a college in Sacramento as word starts spreading through the audience, advising that classes are shutting down and going online. The pandemic is on, and Wong, possessed of a naturally theatrical frame of mind, freaks out in the grand manner. Ignoring multiple Facebook posts warning her to avoid the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, she puts her nerves on red alert. Then there is the matter of her stalled career, although, even as she admits, "When all of humanity is panicked about dropping dead, it's not a good time to demand, 'Will somebody please think of the actors?"

Holed up in her apartment in Los Angeles' Koreatown, desperate for something to do and discovering that face masks are in critically short supply, she starts running them up on her sewing machine, distributing them initially to family and friends. Given her considerable talent for self-mockery, she goes bigger with her efforts, portraying her decision as a Joan-of-Arc moment set to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Soon, the orders are pouring in on social media. A trip to the post office in those early panicked days, when so little was known about the disease's transmission, is portrayed as a raid out of an old Hollywood war film, with Wong, channeling Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, announcing, "I love the smell of hand sanitizer in the morning!"

But as new cases -- and deaths -- rise exponentially, Wong can't keep up with the burgeoning demand for masks. So, she enlists the help of others, including her mother in San Francisco, who brings along her circle of friends. Thus is born the Auntie Sewing Squad -- the unfortunate acronym doesn't occur to her until later -- which grows into a nationwide cadre of (mostly) women turning out masks by the thousands. As Wong takes her story to the networks and newspapers, all sorts of people get involved, offering help and donations: Buddhist monks respond with grace, tearing up their saffron robes to provide fabric for masks.

The Auntie Sewing Squad grows beyond Wong's ability to solely mange it, so she institutes a level of "Super Aunties" to coordinate local efforts, delivering supplies and food to keep everyone going. When participants start dropping out from sheer exhaustion, Wong organizes summer replacements of schoolkids, or, as she calls it, "our first ASS child labor camp," adding, "Eat your heart out, Nike!" From the get-go, the mission is clear: Masks are reserved for frontline healthcare workers and underserved communities such as farmworkers, the indigenous, and the homeless. For all its laughter, a crucial thread running through Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord is her rising indignation at the government's incompetence, not least its inability to provide basic supplies. More than once, she asks the audience, "Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy?" I'm sure I needn't report the response.

Of course, a great deal more happened during this time, most of it detailed in Caite Hevner's vivid parade of projections: antivax demonstrations, the death of George Floyd, wildfires in the West, a nerve-wracking election, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Capitol riot, and a wave of anti-Asian hate. Through it all, Wong maintains a perfect balance of righteous anger and wisecracking humor. Defending her career and her childless state, she tells us, "For the price of admission, you receive my repackaged panic and suffering, in a way that makes you feel loved and liberated. I didn't have children for you!" Her summer schoolkid recruiting plan is a raging success, thanks to "parents of cooped-up kids dying to enroll them in my 'I meant it as a joke' child sweatshop." Taking part in self-defense classes on Zoom, with many others, including her mom, she notes, "This is my mother encouraging me to fight back. Wow! We're a fighting mother daughter duo! This is the worst best epilogue to The Joy Luck Club ever!"

Aided by Chay Yew's buoyant direction, Wong brings back all the things we'd rather forget, converting them into engaging and provocative entertainment. (The funniest sequence may be an empathy exercise in which the audience is encouraged to listen, without judgment, to such antivax excuses as "vaccines turn you into a magnet;" it is, of course, a dismal failure.) Wong's piece is very much in the tradition of Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me and it is more tautly constructed than its predecessor. It all unfolds on Junghyun Georgia Lee's amusing set, a kind of playground filled with oversized pincushions and spools of thread. The upstage wall, consisting of black, white, and gray fabric, is transformed near the finale in a simple-but-effective coup de théâtre courtesy of Amith Chandrashaker's lighting; the designer also provides many other effects, including a full-out ballyhoo for a fantasy sequence in which Wong imagines herself winning a "Pandemmy Award." Mikhail Fiksel's sound design delivers audio for the many video sequences, along with underscoring and a set of voices on walkie-talkie during a faux battle sequence. Costume designer Linda Cho outfits Wong in a jumpsuit that opens up to become the seamstress' version of battle gear.

Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord can't help but end on a bittersweet note; the pandemic is still happening, after all, and Wong is performing for a masked audience -- although, with masks now available in abundance, the aunties can gracefully retire. But it offers proof positive of the difference that individuals can make when they pull together in a crisis. There's also that nagging question: Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy? You decide. --David Barbour

(5 November 2021)

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