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From elected official to 'Sweatshop Overlord,' this performer takes on unlikely roles

Los Angeles artist Kristina Wong in <a href="https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/kirk-douglas-theatre/2022-23/kristina-wong-sweatshop-overlord/"><em>Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord</em></a>, a co-production with East West Players.
Javier Vasquez
Los Angeles artist Kristina Wong in Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, a co-production with East West Players.

On stage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, Kristina Wong presents herself as an out-of-work performance artist facing the onslaught of COVID-19 with little more than a bias toward action and some basic sewing skills.

"I have a Hello Kitty sewing machine. I got half a cut-up bed sheet. I got four yards of elastic," says the Pulitzer Prize-nominated creator of the satirical solo show Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, playing through Mar. 12.

But there's another side to Wong's seemingly humble theatrical persona: She is also the swaggering, self-appointed kingpin of the "Auntie Sewing Squad" — an ad-hoc network of volunteer mask-makers the then-unemployed artist galvanized in real life through Facebook during the pandemic.

"This is my ancestral destiny!" Wong yells, her brash, amplified voice reverberating maniacally across the space as she marches about the set strewn with oversized bobbins of thread, pincushions and needles, all made of colorful felt. "I am the Sweatshop Overlord!"

A natural-born leader

Off-stage, the 44-year-old, Los Angeles-based artist has devoted much of her recent career to taking on leadership roles at the grassroots level. She then turns these real-life experiences into hilarious performance pieces touching on serious social justice themes.

There's Kristina Wong for Public Office, the performer's satire about her adventures in local politics. The solo show is based on her ongoing experience running and serving on her local neighborhood council in Koreatown.

There's also a stage production currently in the works about her role as an influencer for the World Harvest Food Bank in L.A.

And although she isn't planning on making theater out of it for now, Wong even got suckered recently into serving as treasurer on her building's HOA. "I have no idea what I'm doing," Wong told NPR in an interview.

Yet taking charge is in Wong's DNA. "She was always a leader in her school," said Gwen Wong, the artist's mother, in an interview with NPR. "She could easily be a CEO or executive director of some organization."

Sewing masks to save lives

As self-deprecating as she is energetic, Kristina Wong likes to take charge because she wants to get things done. This was the impulse fueling her decision, in March 2020, to launch the casual, mask-sewing Facebook page that would quickly snowball into the sprawling, complex operation that was the Auntie Sewing Squad.

Kristina Wong demonstrates how to make a mask at the Hello Kitty Sewing machine in her Koreatown, Los Angeles apartment.
/ Chloe Veltman/NPR
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Chloe Veltman/NPR
Kristina Wong demonstrates how to make a mask at the Hello Kitty Sewing machine in her Koreatown, Los Angeles apartment.

"I really thought we were all gonna die," said Wong about how she felt at the start of the pandemic. "So I could try to look for income right now. But it feels like the more important thing is to keep everyone alive."

Wong's Chinese immigrant grandparents ran a laundry business in San Francisco from the 1960s to around 1980, when they retired. Wong said her mom and aunts sewed, so there was always sewing around her as she grew up — albeit mostly of the functional, repairing-mending kind.

"I am very sloppy," Wong said of her abilities as a seamstress (She owns a Hello Kitty sewing machine in real life.) "I use the sewing machine like a stapler. I yank things through."

She said when demand for masks boomed during the pandemic, it made more sense for her to focus on Auntie Sewing Squad "overlording" — doing things like coordinating fabric donations and talking to the press — rather than sewing masks herself.

"She was very good at making stuff happen," said author Rebecca Solnit, who, as one of Wong's underlings, was known as the Auntie Sewing Squad's "Shakedown Auntie." ("Shakedown, because I would go on Facebook and make money come in and stuff.")

Solnit said one of Wong's greatest leadership skills was creating a support network for the aunties that made them feel valued. They did nice things for each other, like delivering homemade cookies and teaching online yoga classes. One of the aunties, Valerie Soe, made a short documentary about the members' system of self-care, featuring music by the Kronos Quartet.

"There were other sewing projects," Solnit said of the proliferation of these types of grassroots mask-making efforts on Facebook during the pandemic. "But this one built a culture and a community for the people doing the sewing."

When life turns into political satire

Sometimes, Wong takes on leadership roles that make great satirical theater but don't quite work out how she hoped they would in real life.

Such is the case with her stint as a local elected official, which served as source material for the 2020 show, Kristina Wong for Public Office.

Wong said she'd been thinking about doing a political show since the 2016 presidential election, as a commentary on the theatrical spectacle of contemporary politicians.

"I was, like, if politicians are going to be the spectacle makers, then maybe I just take my old job back and run for office and just see what that is and if that will make any change or shift," Wong said.

Her decision to run and get herself elected to L.A.'s Subdistrict Five Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council in 2019 came about through a strange turn of events.

It began when she was the target of a trolling campaign orchestrated by InfoWars. Wong said the conspiracy theory website took exception to what she taught kids on her children's social justice-themed web TV series Radical Cram School.

"I wasn't trying to be a right-wing laughing stock meme," Wong said of the deluge of abuse she received on social media from extremists. (The performer shared screenshots of some of these messages with NPR.)

One night, Wong sought refuge at her friend Angie Brown's place to de-stress.

The activist and TV producer, who also lives in Koreatown, offered the performer some weed.

"And in about an hour, she was so high," Brown said. "We were talking a lot, and I convinced her to run for neighborhood council with me."

Wong says she had equally high expectations for her role on the lowest rung of local politics.

"I was like, we're gonna decriminalize sex work! We're gonna make affordable housing for everybody! We're gonna protect all renters!" Wong said.

But the job, which Wong continues to do, has mostly come up short. Other than successfully persuading the council to vote to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — a symbolic gesture — Wong said she doesn't feel like she's been able to accomplish much in her role.

Kristina Wong (center) on a Koreatown apartment building roof flanked by fellow neighborhood council members Joeng Lynn Stransky (left) and Angie Brown (right.)
/ Chloe Veltman/NPR
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Chloe Veltman/NPR
Kristina Wong (center) on a Koreatown apartment building roof flanked by fellow neighborhood council members Jeong Lynn Stransky (left) and Angie Brown (right.)

"It's very hard to do big things from an unpaid office," Wong said.

A dazzling artistic career ahead

Even if Wong doesn't have a dazzling political career ahead of her, she is certainly hitting her stride as an artist.

Sweatshop Overlord was one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022. And last month, Wong received the Doris Duke Award. The unrestricted prize is one of the country's biggest arts accolades, $550,000.

"So much of my identity has been forged in a certain scrappiness," Wong said, sitting in her living room on a couch the performer rescued from the street. "So what do I do now that I have a safety net?"

Wong's term on the neighborhood council is coming to a close in the spring. She said she has no plans to run again for this or any other political office anytime soon.

"Oh, my God. Let me just make theater," she said. "I prefer anarchy."

Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Through Mar. 12.

Audio and digital stories edited by Ciera Crawford. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.