For SF native Kristina Wong, Covid project becomes a hit comedy show

When the going gets tough, the tough ones start sewing.

Perhaps that’s the lesson of “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” the acclaimed solo exhibition currently on view at the American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater.

When the COVID-19 shutdown hit in March 2020, comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong was on tour with “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” her show chronicling her successful campaign for neighborhood council in Koreatown in Los Angeles.

With her tour suddenly cut short, Wong began sewing much-needed homemade masks to help fill the shortage, and quickly recruited friends from around the world to participate as well.

“What I had fought for my whole life, which was doing theater and solo performances, was now something that could potentially infect and kill everyone in my audience,” Wong recalls.

“I had seen this article saying that hospitals were looking for home-sewn masks, and I had my little Joan of Arc aha moment where I said to myself, this is how I become indispensable. I made a very naive offer to the Internet saying, “If you’re immunocompromised or don’t have access to masks, I can make one for you,” not realizing that almost everyone did. world during this first week of the pandemic. . The first mask I sewed was on March 20, and then four days later I created a Facebook group because I needed help with all these requests I kept saying yes to.

She called the group Auntie Sewing Squad, the cheeky acronym of which only came to mind after the fact. The team quickly grew to 800 aunts, sewing and delivering hundreds of thousands of homemade masks to communities in need, as documented in the 2021 University of California Press book “The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice.”

“I decided to add people to the group who I knew also sewed, and many of them were Asian women,” says Wong. “I pulled my mother into the group, and my mother attracted her friends into the group. There was an exchange between two aunts in the group, a Korean and a Chinese. They both had mothers who worked in the garment industry and they compared their memories of what it meant to them, as they helped their mother with piecework. If I think about why most of these volunteers knew how to sew, it was because it was a survival skill they learned as immigrants when they arrived here.

Originally from San Francisco, Wong says his grandparents were Chinese immigrants who owned a laundry in the Richmond District.

“Here we are replicating that work that our grandparents and parents did with the intention of never having to do it ourselves,” says Wong. “I was like, oh my God, a lot of my volunteers are Asian and I’m ordering them around. I became the overlord of the sweatshops.

Wong took on the persona of a cruel overlord to entertain the many volunteers.

“It was this weird gallows humor joke to reflect on the situation that the most powerful country in the world had put us in,” she says.

Her current solo exhibition began as a sort of video diary created while she was sheltering in place.

“I started working on the Zoom show during the pandemic, thinking we would never return to civilization,” says Wong. “I basically just wrote up to where we were that day. The broadcast would end with, for example, “day 180”, in parentheses “today”. And then I got up on my bed and bowed. We were doing a question and answer session, and all the aunts who were sewing remotely from home turned on their cameras. Because deep down, I was just entertaining them. You can’t just tell people to sew and expect them to sew without losing morale. It was like they were hearing our origin story over and over again through me in my house while they made masks.

The show’s live premiere at New York Theater Workshop in late 2021 was Wong’s first in-person performance since all this started. The series won the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Awards and was one of two finalists for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“I now feel like this is this truly incredible document for this community that I helped create, and it gives a glimmer of the generosity and care that was possible in these unimaginable circumstances in which none of between us would have thought that it would be found. “, says Wong. “It was such an absurd moment where we were cutting our sheets to keep the nurses alive. We are the most powerful country in the world and so we were not equipped at the moment. And a simple piece of fabric and someone who remembers how to sew in their homeschool class could mean the difference between life or death.

For a kid from San Francisco who has lived in Los Angeles for decades, bringing the show to ACT is like a prize in itself.

“I did a season with Young People’s Teen Musical Theater Company, and ACT has always been that theater benchmark for me,” says Wong. “So this feels like a nice coming-full-circle moment. We also have a lot of aunts in the Bay Area who have all sewn and become very close, and a bunch of them will be coming. Whenever I tour the show in any city, the aunts who live nearby come, and it’s usually the first time I meet them in person.

Contact Sam Hurwitt at and follow him on


Written and performed by Kristina Wong, presented by the American Conservatory Theater

Through: May 5

Or: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco

Tickets: $25 to $137;

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