Theater review by Raven Snook
In her cheekily titled solo show, performance artist and activist Kristina Wong weaves a colorful tale out of sewing personal protective equipment during the pandemic. As the founder and self-declared overlord of the Auntie Sewing Squad, also known as ASS, she and her cohorts—primarily women of color from across the U.S.—crafted more than 350,000 masks in 540 days, distributing them to frontline workers and at-risk communities throughout the country. That's the connecting thread in this sprawling crazy quilt of an evening, which encompasses urgent political issues (Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, anti-vaxxers) as well as personal ones (the ticking of the proverbial biological clock, an in-your-face dramatization of a vaginal cyst). Sleek and tailored it's not, but that's by design: Wong's larger-than-life stage persona is endearingly boisterous and a tad messy. But even with a few dropped lines and loose ends, the play is an entertaining and discomfiting dispatch on what the pandemic revealed about inequality and ineptitude in America, as well as a celebration of ingenuity, community and survival.
In scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee's playful recreation of Wong's sewing space in Los Angeles, festooned with vibrant fabrics and oversize pincushions, the performer lets loose on the last 18 months, and director Chay Yew rarely holds her back. Unemployed because of the COVID-related theater shutdown, Wong yearns for a creative outlet, and in response to widespread need, what begins as solitary mask-making quickly balloons into a virtual factory. She talks hilariously about enlisting friends, family, strangers and even children in her "pyramid scheme of prevention"; they salvaged elastic from their bras and cut up old clothes to make masks when traditional materials grew scarce. There's audience participation—get ready to part with your hair ties or, if you're brave, your brassiere—along with insightful sight gags (like a satirical Rambo-style getup fashioned from sewing supplies by costume designer Linda Cho) and projections that evoke pivotal moments in recent history. The first half of the show, which chronicles the early days of her endeavor, is generally tighter; once she starts stitching in multiple social-justice concerns, it gets a bit lopsided. Yet the play’s points are sharp and bear repeating. In the emerging genre of pandemic theater, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord is haute couture.
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord. New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Kristina Wong. Directed by Chay Yew. With Wong. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
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