At ACT, funny Kristina Wong sews her way to fame during COVID 

San Francisco-raised Kristina Wong tells stories about her mask-sewing adventures during COVID in “Sweatshop Overlord” at the Strand Theater. (Courtesy Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater)

Too soon for a comic show that revisits the first few years of the pandemic? 

The recent opening night audience at writer-performer Kristina Wong’s solo show “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” at American Conservatory Theater didn’t think so. For starters, scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set—giant-sized red pincushions and giant spools, a red Hello Kitty sewing machine upstage center, packing boxes scattered around, the fabric and detritus of a sweatshop—signals out-and-out hilarity. 

So do Wong’s introductory remarks: “Trigger warning: This show does take place during the pandemic,” and “No titillation.” 

Kristina Wong’s wild solo show “Sweatshop Overlord” details both personal and political aspects of the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater)

Then there’s Wong’s own decidedly comic persona: As directed by Chay Yew, she races around the stage like a wind-up toy on steroids, altering her costume (colorful, inventive design by Linda Cho), inhabiting at various times the persona of a comic book action hero(ine). She wisecracks, engages audience members, throws herself, breathless on the floor, leaps atop the giant red pincushions to make salient points. 

Girl-warrior Wong, raised in San Francisco, was sequestered in her apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, when she gathered a few of her “aunties”—Asian-American women with sewing skills, including her mother—to sew and send out masks for the needy, using whatever materials they could scrounge, including the elastic found in bra straps.  

The loose-knit group (Aunties Sewing Squad, aka, yes, ASS) eventually expanded to include more than 350 volunteers from all over the country and went right on sewing for over 500 days (until the muddled government kicked in with mask distribution). Wong jokes that she even created a child labor contingent of kids. 

So while the rest of us were moping around in our houses and bemoaning our fate, Wong and her cohort, mostly without a source of income during the endeavor, were keeping busy.  Ultimately, they made 550,000 masks. 

As the ideal, and inspiring, interracial human-interest story during those dark times, the seamstress auntie group became famous.   

The group is the central motif of “Sweatshop Overlord” and Wong keeps the audience laughing all the way. But she also weaves in the major events of the 2020-21 COVID season and beyond, aided by visual projections: the murder of George Floyd, the “second surge” of COVID, the storming of the White House on Jan. 6, 2021, the controversy over vaccination, the California fires, a second wave of anti-Asian violence, governmental chaos and confusion.  

“Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy?” Wong asks several times. And, “If this is the end, we go down sewing!” 

“Sweatshop Overlord” is a considerable contribution to what will inevitably be a surfeit of plays, movies, books and documentaries about that difficult time. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won several other prizes during its New York run.  

But despite a variety of material—including emotional references to a few aunties who died, her own doubts about deciding not to have children, and a very funny segment about an uncomfortable vaginal cyst that she developed in the midst of the chaos) — Wong devotes too much time, in this overlong 95-minute piece, to detailed descriptions of the mask-making efforts and to sentimental tributes to the hard-working aunties.  

What truly resonates is the humorous way that she challenges us to examine our own individual reactions to a worldwide dilemma such as a pandemic: to ask ourselves the kinds of existential questions that she found herself addressing during those years.  

It may indeed be triggering to some, facing these questions only four years after it all started. To others, it could be a kind of wake-up call. 

“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” continues through May 5 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $135 at  

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