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Kristina Wong's new show 'Sweatshop Overlord' came out of her experiences in the pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

During the pandemic, when many were binge-watching Netflix and doom scrolling Twitter, Kristina Wong was running a sweatshop out of her apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles.

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KRISTINA WONG: Ensuring a machinelike output from our bodies, threatening to snip the fingers off any slackers.

SIMON: Not a real sweatshop - a satirical solo show named "Sweatshop Overlord" about her real life experience mobilizing hundreds of volunteers across the country to assemble masks to stop the spread of COVID. Now, Kristina Wong is winning awards and taking on more roles. NPR's Chloe Veltman has this profile.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: In "Sweatshop Overlord," Kristina Wong presents herself as an out-of-work performance artist facing the onslaught of COVID-19 with little more than a bias towards action and some basic sewing skills.

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K WONG: I have a Hello Kitty sewing machine. I got half a cut-up bedsheet. I got four yards of elastic.

VELTMAN: But there's another side to her seemingly humble theatrical persona. Wong is also the swaggering, self-appointed kingpin of the Auntie Sewing Squad, an ad hoc network of volunteer mask makers she galvanized through Facebook during the pandemic.

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K WONG: This is my ancestral destiny. I am the sweatshop overlord.

GWEN WONG: She was always a leader in her school.

VELTMAN: That's Gwen Wong, the artist's mother. She says taking charge is in her 44-year-old daughter's DNA.

G WONG: She could easily be a CEO or a director of some organization.

VELTMAN: Kristina Wong makes a habit of taking on leadership roles - at the grassroots level, that is. 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 satire the performer created about her adventures in local politics.

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K WONG: Last April, with 71 votes - if you do not count the vote that I cast for myself - I became the real life elected official of Subdistrict Five Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council.

VELTMAN: There's also a stage production in the works about her role as an unusual type of tastemaker. Here's a video on social media of her working with the World Harvest Food Bank in LA.

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K WONG: It is I, Kristina Wong, Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama. And I am also a food bank influencer.

VELTMAN: And although she isn't planning on making theater out of it for now, Wong says, in an interview with NPR, she even got suckered recently into serving as treasurer on her building's HOA.

K WONG: I have no idea what I'm doing.

VELTMAN: As self-deprecating as she is energetic, Wong likes to take charge because she wants to get things done. Take her decision in March 2020 to launch the Auntie Sewing Squad.

K WONG: I really thought we were all going to die, so I was like, I could try to look for income right now. But it feels like the more important thing is to keep everyone alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE RUNNING)

VELTMAN: Wong says her Chinese immigrant grandparents ran a laundry business in San Francisco. And there was always a lot of sewing happening around her. But as she demonstrates her mask-making skills at the Hello Kitty sewing machine in her homey Koreatown apartment...

K WONG: And we'd cut these shapes.

VELTMAN: ...The performer admits she doesn't rate her own abilities with a needle and thread too highly.

K WONG: I am very sloppy. (Laughter) I use the sewing machine like a stapler. I, like, yank things through.

VELTMAN: She says when demand for masks boomed, it made more sense for her to focus on Auntie Sewing Squad overlording, as she calls it - doing things like coordinating fabric donations and talking to the press. Writer Rebecca Solnit, aka the Auntie Sewing Squad's Shakedown Auntie, was one of Wong's underlings.

REBECCA SOLNIT: Shakedown because I would go on Facebook and make money come in and stuff.

VELTMAN: Solnit says one of Wong's greatest skills as a leader 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.

SOLNIT: And there were other sewing projects, but this one built a culture and a community for the people doing the sewing.

VELTMAN: Sometimes Wong takes on leadership roles that end up making great satirical theatre but don't quite work out the way she hoped they would in real life.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is Nazi-level indoctrination.

VELTMAN: This clip from the conspiracy theory website Infowars is part of a trolling campaign against Wong, which, in a bizarre turn of events, led to her decision to run for neighborhood council and eventually the 2020 show "Christina Wong For Public Office."

K WONG: I wasn't trying to be a right-wing laughingstock meme.

VELTMAN: Wong says Infowars attacked her because they didn't like what the performer was teaching kids on her children's web TV series, "Radical Cram School."

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "RADICAL CRAM SCHOOL")

K WONG: Welcome to Radical Cram School. We're going to learn about social justice, revolution...

VELTMAN: Wong says the ensuing abuse she received on social media was so stressful, one night she took cover at her friend Angie Brown's place.

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VELTMAN: Brown is an activist and TV producer and Wong's neighbor in Koreatown.

ANGIE BROWN: And I'm a huge weed consumer. And so I immediately offered her an edible, and I had her smoke some. And in about an hour she was so high. And we were talking a lot, and I convinced her to run for neighborhood council with me.

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

K WONG: I was like, we're going to decriminalize sex work. We're going to make affordable housing for everybody. We're going to protect all renters.

VELTMAN: Then reality set in.

K WONG: It's very hard to do big things from an unpaid office.

VELTMAN: Even if Wong doesn't have a dazzling political career ahead of her, she is 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 one of the country's biggest arts accolades. The Doris Duke Award is worth $550,000.

K WONG: So much of my identity has been forged in a certain scrappiness. So I'm just like, what do I do now that I have a safety net?

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

K WONG: Ugh. Like, oh, my God, let me just make theater. I prefer anarchy.

VELTMAN: Kristina Wong says creating art feels immediate. Creating legislation, though important, takes way too long.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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