Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord Off Broadway Review: Masks of Comedy

L.A.-based performance artist finds humor and close-to-home truths during the pandemic

Photo: Joan Marcus

Performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong found herself in a familiar position at the moment the pandemic began In March 2020 — performing in front of a crowd of students at a community college in California, and then the very next day sheltering in place in her apartment in L.A.’s Koreatown as her scheduled gigs were all canceled. “An entire lifetime of being raised in the shadow of failure pushed me over the edge, and made me the unessential, unemployed performance artist I am today,” she jokes in her new one-woman show, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord.”

Wong’s new show, which opened Thursday at the New York Theater Workshop, recounts her surprising efforts to take her idle time in quarantine to transform herself into an unlikely heroine of the moment — an essential worker cranking out face masks on the Hello Kitty sewing machine she has had for years as the daughter of Chinese American immigrants for whom learning to sew was a rite of passage. “The one thing that has been passed down from the older women of my family is the skill of sewing,” Wong explians. “Also, Costco memberships and guilt.”

Soon, she finds herself enlisting a whole army of fellow stuck-at-home volunteers to crank out masks for front-line workers and disadvantaged communities across the country — most of them women, many people of color like herself and all of them seeking an outlet to do something in a time of great confusion. She even enlists her mother and her mother’s friends in the project, and finds herself forging new, deeper connections with her family in the process.

Wong deploys humor to great effect in her crazy-quilt of a show, particularly in the first two-thirds as she recounts the scary early weeks and months of the pandemic, as her volunteer Auntie Sewing Squad — affectionately dubbed ASS, of course — overcomes everything from a shortage of elastic to a crushing demand for masks from just about everywhere in the country. More than once, she is given to wonder aloud, “Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy?”

Wong remains a compelling, irrepressible onstage presence, whether she’s railing against injustice or recounting her experience with a vaginal cyst in starkly graphic detail. And she’s boosted enormously by Junghyun Georgia Lee’s vibrant set, with a back wall of 1,400 face masks and a stage that reproduces Wong’s sewing area with stitched fabric items, from oversize pincushion/chairs to a fabric version of that Hello Kitty sewing machine.

The final third of the show can feel a bit unstructured — perhaps I should say hand-sewn — with its digressions into various political movements that cropped up mid-pandemic, from Black Lives Matter to anti-Asian violence to a certain president whose name is never once dropped. (Director Chay Yew helps keep the pace up, even when the material lags.) But Wong forges connections with the audience that are as genuine and as heartfelt as the ones she develops with dozens of strangers who came together in a troubled time for a good, if simple cause. She proves that a pandemic need not produce only masks of tragedy — but masks of comedy and joy as well.

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