Kristina Wong in her one-woman show. Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
Is it too soon to laugh about COVID-19? Is it OK to keep crying about it?
I found myself doing both while in the audience of Kristina Wong’s one-woman production, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. I was acutely aware of the poignancy of the moment: Like everyone else there, I had a mask on (it was required), and I was watching a COVID-era show about Wong and her network of mask-making “aunties” who made a difference in so many people’s lives and undoubtedly saved some too.
Wong is a tireless performer able to toggle back and forth between broad comedy (as when she inflates a balloon, standing in for a cyst she endured on an unmentionable part of her body) and the edge of breakdown (recalling the courageous Asian photographer Corby Lee, a friend lost to the virus).
The 90-minute show is chronological, taking us from the early dark days of the COVID shutdown to late 2021, when masks were being factory-produced and those sewn together with love and sacrifice by Wong and her far-flung volunteer Auntie Sewing Squad (or A.S.S.) were no longer as in demand. We meet the women (and a few men) virtually enlisted by Wong who collectively made more than 350,000 masks for donation to the very neediest.
Along the way, Wong makes time for snippets of searing commentary about the “banana republic” that the great American democracy has so dishearteningly descended into. Neither the anti-vaxxers nor the politicians and especially not the racists escape her sharpened oratorical sword.
Reminders come too of the other terrible events that paralleled the spread of the worst health crisis to date in American history: the murder of George Floyd, the persecution of protesters in its wake, the deadly wildfires of California, the attempted coup of Jan. 6. It’s a lot to tackle in a one hour-and-a-half show but remarkably Wong with only the help of a projection screen and a few props moves things along swiftly and compellingly. There are also bits of audience participation that are clever and mercifully brief.
We know that the COVID crisis has changed but it has not ended. Even so, we should be able to stare it in the face, confront its brutal realities and wring from it what little cathartic triumphs we can. “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” seems like a good place to start.
“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” runs through Oct. 16 at La Jolla Playhouse.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.