Elected representative, performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong takes more than just the main stage at ASU with her work in social change, her artistic residency and of course, her autobiographical solo-show, "Kristina Wong for Public Office."
Wong is an elected representative of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles. The show satirizes a version of Wong campaigning for office, drawing influence from the performative political campaigns of the 2016 presidential election cycle, church revivals and party rallies.
"It almost feels like we're in a place where politicians and artists have switched jobs, and artists are now the ones who are reclaiming the space for social change in truth," said Wong.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she began a volunteer-aid Facebook group called Auntie Sewing Squad. Cheekily abbreviated as "ASS," the group materialized into a community of mostly Asian women — aunties — who know how to sew.
Spearheaded by Wong, the ASS sewed over 350,000 masks out of old clothing during 15 months through the shutdown, distributing them to communities all over the country; among them Navajo Nation — a demographic that was disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Wong began writing and performing autobiographical theater back in college as she found it therapeutic.
"Presenting (autobiographical work) was much more interesting to me than writing about people who didn't exist, and was much more freeing emotionally," Wong said.
She turned her experience leading her volunteer group into a show. Titled "Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord," the show chronicles Wong's volunteer efforts in the pandemic.
"It felt like a war movie," said Wong. "Not the blood and the carnage, but the disillusionment of strategizing and fighting against a real threat."
When live theater resumed in late 2021, New York Theatre Workshop — the home of Tony-winning musicals such as "Rent" and "Hadestown" — approached Wong about staging the live premiere of "Sweatshop Overlord" as part of their reopening season.
The production was critically acclaimed, won multiple awards and was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama in 2022.
Soon after, Wong was announced as an artist-in-residence at ASU Gammage.
Working with the Pitchfork Pantry at ASU, she is interested in de-stigmatizing food assistance programs. She is collaborating with ASU students as part of her residency, and hosted a talkback with students about her work with the Multicultural Communities of Excellence.
"Whether you're walking down the street, you're in the grocery store; people read you, so I feel like the one way to sort of diffuse or to do a show about yourself is to first diffuse what everybody sees," Wong said.
"And I especially think this applies to people with marginalized bodies," she told students.
Wong also taught a masterclass on solo performance to ASU theater students on crafting their own pre-show disclaimers and finding personal ways to connect with the performance space around them.
Pre-show disclaimers prepare an audience for the content they are about to see, while offering a veil of protection for the solo performer against assumptions that might stem from their identity.
Toby Yatso, an assistant teaching professor at the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, hosts many such masterclasses for performing and resident artists at ASU.
"Kristina was the most interactive artist we've had as part of the masterclass sessions," said Yatso. "These are hosted to offer performing arts students perspective, truths and lots of inspiration. She was so lovely in the way that it was so participative and participatory."
Yatso's students, who themselves are working on solo-performance cabarets as part of their semester, were initially hesitant to fully open up, but Wong's approach helped them.
Andy Chen, a graduate student studying performance with a focus in conducting, was part of the class.
"Kristina was an inspiring presence to have in the room, not just because of all the history and rich artistic life that she brought, but for how she treated everyone in that room with equally worthy things to share," said Chen. "You could not leave that room without feeling more empowered as an artist."
"Developing work is by its nature breaking conventions of theatergoing," said Yatso. "You need to teach the audience how to receive your piece, because the conventions aren't there to help you and save you, then you're breaking those conventions."
In February, Wong received the Doris Duke Award, a $550,000 prize awarded to individual performing artists. Continuing to break conventions, Wong is closely working with Indigenous communities in Arizona, as she deconstructs food banks for her next show.
"I'm going through a lot of questions in my head right now. Yes, you can make a food bank cool, but why do we have a food bank in the first place in this rich, powerful country in the world? Why has it come to this for middle class families now?" Wong said.
"Those are sort of things I'm exploring. But a lot of it just started from my joy of going to this one food bank and sharing joy with all the aunties. Now I'm going — 'oh my god, what is this show? Premiering in two years? Oh, shit. Right. Yeah.'"
Kristina Wong will perform "Kristina Wong for Public Office" at ASU Gammage March 18, at 7:00 p.m.
Edited by Claire van Doren, Reagan Priest, Sophia Balasubramanian and Grace Copperthite.
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