The minute you walk into the New York Theatre Workshop and take your seat, you’re confronted by oversize toys: a central sewing machine, a large spool of thread (rope really), a ruler, pin cushions big enough for Kristina Wong to sit on, which she frequently does, in the play she wrote and which bears her name (scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee.)
In any case, it all promises to be cheerful and pleasant, which is a far cry from the more serious-minded and pretentious works that have been filling our Off-Broadway stages lately. (Maybe the Covid pandemic and climate change and other troubling matters have been prompting playwrights to go for the jugular these days.)
But of course, looks are famously and frequently deceptive, if not all the time. Indeed, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overload emerges as one of the most serious-minded plays of all, as it surveys what we all have been going through and having to endure for the past 20 months. During that period, as you may recall, there were various times when necessary facemasks were proving unavailable—and especially in different parts of the country. Wong made it her business to recruit hundreds of her “Aunties” to produce them and provide relief, ergo the self-deprecating description in her title. She may have been overseeing something akin to a “sweatshop,” but it’s hard to imagine her as a demanding “overlord” of anything.
When it begins, Wong is sitting at the sewing machine, no doubt making a facemask, as she welcomes us—yes, it’s another one of those works that recognizes our presence. We’re told that it’s March 2020, and that she went to a community college in Sacramento before moving to Los Angeles. Kristina Wong is so of “California” today, that it can all be at times difficult for a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker to take. She’s wearing an all-black pants-suit, which she quickly removes to reveal a colorful outfit even as she asks female audience-members to remove their bras and their headbands. They do and throw them onto the stage. (One wonders if they somehow get them back after the show is over.) While most members of the audience seem to find it all very funny, they are responding to the performance more than to the material—or so I assumed.
“This show takes place in the pandemic,” she says early on, which all but acknowledges that we’re still in the midst of it. She adds, “And because it’s set in the pandemic, there are mentions of death, illness, poverty, mental health stressors,” she adds by way of warning. In total, the “Aunties” sewing group, which included Wong’s own mother, made over 350,000 of the facemasks, bringing at least some measure of relief to a great many people.
Wong also asks, more than once, “Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy?” If she is, by turns, furious and belligerent, she is more than entitled to, given that Asians were blamed for the pandemic by our not so illustrious President at the time. One at times wished that Director Chay Yew led her to perform at more of an even keel.
You may also wish that the director had the lighting designer find more of a rhyme or reason to when the lights go up or down so radically, as they frequently do. (The lighting is by Amith Chandrashaker and the extremely colorful costumes were designed by Linda Cho.) And then there are the many projections on all three of the stage walls, sometimes of conflicting or different images, designed by Caite Hevner.
There is finally a certain symmetry to the overall conception and staging, however, as Wong pulls up her pants-suit again, and buttons it up at the ending.
Kristina Wong: Sweatshop Overlord (through November 21, 2021; steaming: December 1 -14, 2021)
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
For tickets, call 212-869-4545 or visit http://www.nytw.org/tickets/