In the beginning of the show Kristina Wong: Sweatshop Overlord, Wong gives the audience a trigger warning: “The show takes place in the pandemic.” Said by almost any other artist at this point, that statement might be met with an internal groan. After all, we’re still living in the pandemic and still deeply traumatized by the past 20 months, what insight can possibly be gained right now? But Wong’s delightful and deeply moving one-person show at New York Theatre Workshop may be just what we all need to start processing the events of the past year.
This is because Sweatshop Overlord is not just a compendium of all that was traumatic about the past 20 months. It is more specific and compelling than that. Using her off-kilter and tongue-in-cheek humor, Wong describes how she started a virtual sewing circle with women from all around the country, to make free masks for people who needed them. And it’s an indication of Wong’s sense of humor that the group name, Auntie Sewing Squad, also forms the acronym ASS.
Yet despite the light-hearted name, there is a deep importance to what ASS were doing, using what is traditionally relegated and diminished as women’s work to save the lives of strangers. What started off as a hobby to get through the early days of the pandemic became, as Wong says, a “shadow FEMA,” providing masks, and even hand sanitizer, to healthcare workers, Native American reservations, immigrant farmworkers, unhoused folks, ICE detainees, Black Lives Matter protesters, and the many other marginalized groups overlooked and ignored by the American government.
The women in (what Wong cheekily calls) her sweatshop, have sewn 350,000 masks (full disclosure: I wrote about the Auntie Sewing Squad last year). But this isn’t one of those feel-good stories about how regular people persevered despite the failures of American society, like those stories about strangers donating to people’s medical bills on Kickstarter.
The genius balance that Wong is able to achieve in Sweatshop Overlord is her ability to highlight the feel-good, human interest aspect of the Auntie Sewing Squad with a deep indictment of American society. What kind of country, Wong exclaims, makes a circus out of billionaires flying off into space, yet is unable to provide its healthcare workers and the most vulnerable among us with life-saving PPE? “Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy?” asks Wong. The audience at New York Theatre Workshop, utterly invested in Wong’s story, answered with a resounding yes at the night I attended the show.
That is not to say that Sweatshop Overlord is a bummer (it’s more like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee rather than 60 Minutes). The set is cuddly and Sesame Street-esque, with a Hello Kitty Sewing Machine at its center and oversized sewing supplies made of felt (Junghyun Georgia Lee designed the set). Lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker skillfully transitions between the different moods of the show. And director Chay Yew makes sure that Wong’s spitfire humor lands with the audience, while allowing for moments of stillness and heart. The thrust staging, with the audiences on three sides, also makes the show feel more intimate and inviting.
Wong is an energetic and engaging performer, with an everywoman appeal (no small feat considering that, as Wong points out, an Asian face has been considered foreign and dangerous during this pandemic). When Wong describes how going outside at the height of the pandemic in 2020 felt like going into battle, and Wong is crawling on her forearms and knees as she’s saying this, the audience understands exactly what she felt. We may not have crawled on our stomach to go to the Post Office, but putting on our masks and gloves to go outside then did feel like going into a war.
There has been an overwhelming sense, as society has started to reopen again, that we are all moving too fast to put the pandemic behind us. We haven’t had the time to process, mourn, and take stock of who we have become. Sweatshop Overlord is theater at its best and most essential. It brings the audience together in conversation, giving us space to be still, and to really look inside ourselves and at the world.
The past year has highlighted how America is broken on a very deep level. But if we can all emerge from this pandemic better people, who are able to care more deeply for one another, especially for the people we have not met, then perhaps we can help make it all a little less broken.
As Wong asks the audience the end of Sweatshop Overlord, "What do you hope for as we move forward? Will you be generous in more than times of crisis?” I hope our answer is yes.