As theaters reopened in 2021 for in-person performances, some developed stories about the COVID-19 pandemic with varying levels of success. Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord was an extraordinary production for its boldness and humor, gaining traction during its run at New York Theatre Workshop from October to November 2021. In the solo show, performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong chronicles 544 days of the pandemic, starting when she was deemed nonessential—like many arts professionals—and decided to sew cloth masks. After connecting online with volunteers, she led the newly formed Auntie Sewing Squad as their Sweatshop Overlord.
Wong joined me on a conference call to discuss the show and the Auntie Sewing Squad. Having just completed a run at La Jolla Playhouse in California, she looks forward to mounting a co-production through Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts this November in Portland. The script remains largely intact from 2021. “No major scenes have been removed. I added a few lines to adapt to the year that passed, to frame that it’s endemic now,” Wong said.
On the Early Days
When Wong founded Auntie Sewing Squad on March 24, 2020, sewing homemade masks and sending them to essential workers held the forefront of her thoughts. Wong didn’t consider time for acting while theaters remained closed. However, Leilani Chan, fellow Auntie and Founding Artistic Director of TeAda Productions, kept encouraging her otherwise. Mounting Zoom performances was different than anything Wong had tried before, allowing her to feature her house as a character with the “rolls of fabric” behind her.
“I’m running around in my pajamas [and] to the sewing machine to tell stories. A technician would run a card that said Day 83, Day 113. There was no real plot because the pandemic was agonizing. The show would end on whatever day we were on with ‘The End?'”
Wong regarded Zoom as a “low-stakes” platform ideal for her experimentation. The Aunties joined Q&As after her virtual performances while they sewed. When she sat down to write a script for the stage version, she felt prepared to capture the overall experience. “I’m glad I wrote things down during the pandemic and performed it in the pandemic because I don’t think I would’ve remembered half of this once we reopened.”
How the Sweatshop Overlord Led the Auntie Sewing Squad
While she considers Zoom low-stakes, Wong regarded her Sweatshop Overlord role as quite high-stakes. Organizing the Aunties—more than 800 volunteers—felt like running an army and going to battle. In this platoon of sorts ranging from age eight to 93, the Aunties took up interesting nicknames: Auntienie Fauci, Vermontie, Survivalist Auntie, Haggle Auntie, to name a few. Wong watched a lot of war movies when she was writing her script, finding a parallel structure to suit the Squad’s ups and downs as they directed their energy to areas most in need of masks. “There are moments where soldiers bond with each other, moments of disillusionment with the war, moments where you return from war and you don’t recognize anybody and they don’t recognize you. They don’t even know why you fought.”
Costs were substantial as one Auntie died, and other Aunties lost friends and family members to COVID. Wong incorporated dark humor throughout the show, weaving in comments that Aunties had earlier posted to their group. Her aim was to reflect with the audience about the “survival mechanism” Aunties used to adjust and motivate one another.
Wong is a master of solo shows, with solo works already under her belt including Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Kristina Wong for Public Office. Even though she’s by herself onstage the entire time, audience members can get a sense of the group dynamics she describes in Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord through her words, the music, and occasional projections. “I’m attracted to long-form solo theater versus standup for 10 minutes [because] you have the time to reel the audience in with humor, drop some of the heavy stuff, and then bring them back up.”
“I Like Projects That Come to an End”
Aside from a platoon mindset, Wong also described the experience of the Auntie Sewing Squad as similar to “running a theater company,” managing Aunties the same way a theater director would encourage and help their actors. “It’s like community theater projects where people work for no money. What keeps them there? The experiences, the camaraderie, that they feel useful.”
She channeled her marketing energy into interviews with the press to promote the Squad and to speak out against violence against Asians and Asian Americans—a number of Aunties early on were Asian or Asian American. Wong and the Aunties expanded their collective sewing efforts beyond hospitals to include entities usually serviced by Federal and state agencies, helping First Nations people, migrants seeking asylum, and community organizations across the country.
I asked Wong if she’d ever run a real theater company. She shook her head. After donating 350,000 handmade masks, Auntie Sewing Squad retired in August 2021 after a year and a half, meant to become obsolete. “I like projects that come to an end. That’s probably why I can’t see myself running a theater company because it perpetually goes on forever.”
On Sweatshop Overlord and Beyond
Auntie Sewing Squad may be officially retired, but their story resonates beyond the theaters where Wong retells it evening after evening. There’s also The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice, a book edited by Mai-Linh K. Hong, Chrissy Yee Lau, and Preeti Sharma. Wong penned a foreword and she appears at bookstore events to promote the book.
In May 2022, she received the distinction of Pulitzer Finalist for the Drama Prize with Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord. On top of performing the show, Wong is still in public office as an elected Sub-district 5 representative of Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council.
On the Value of the Arts and Connecting with Others
As we wrapped up, Wong reflected on two things about the early days of the pandemic. First, artists’ career prospects remained uncertain when localities deemed them nonessential. Closely related is the trend of governments and public entities reallocating money from the arts to “more essential” categories. “The arts is essential, outside the context of the pandemic and sewing masks, and the skills I deployed to run this group to be the powerful collective it is. Arts is about a human connection that we maintain with each other and reminds us that we’re not just cogs in a machine with no purpose.”
The Auntie Sewing Squad banded together not only sew masks, but to help others through an initiative called “Auntie Care.” There’s a hilarious anecdote in the show when Wong gets a ride from a nearby Auntie to see a doctor. Wong recounted to me when Auntie Sunni mentioned that her mother, who was in her 80s, was disappointed about not being able to travel.
“Sunni asked the Aunties to mail postcards to her mother from wherever they were. How sweet is that? She could feel like she was traveling even though she was in the house sewing. These are very profound ways we creatively initiated communicating and supporting each other.”
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, a co-production by Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts, runs November 5 to December 18 in the Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory in Portland, Oregon. This production is recommended for ages 13 and up.