Performance artist/comedian/writer Kristina Wong will world premiere her FROM NUMBER TO NAME for East West Players (in partnership with API Rise Saturday), April 10 and Sunday, April 11, 2021. This funny lady strikes a more serious tone in telling the true-life accounts of formerly incarcerated Asian Pacific Islanders and their affected families. The very busy Kristina found some time to answer a few of my queries after a virtual performance of another new show Kristina Wong, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Kristina! Would you describe FROM NUMBER TO NAME in a three-line pitch?
FROM NUMBER TO NAME is a devised theater piece created with formerly incarcerated Asian Pacific Islander Americans. The cast is formerly incarcerated APIs, folks with family on the inside and their supporters. It’s storytelling we rarely see in our community, from the people who have experienced it.
Will your two-night premiere be presented as a live stream or video?
This will be a live stream! All the performers are on the other side of the screen performing for you. That’s what makes it theater!
Was all your pre-production safely done via Zoom?
Yes. I’ve not met most of the cast members in person. We are all working via Zoom meeting.
Is FROM NUMBER TO NAME more of a documentary with actual Asian-Americans formerly incarcerated or impacted by incarceration, rather than actors portraying them?
I would say it has a lot of elements of “documentary theater” in that the stories we are sharing weren’t written by a playwright, but are lived experiences shared in our rehearsal process. There are still theatrics and more direction, more curated writing than people just talking into Zoom.
What was your ‘casting’ process?
The joke in rehearsals is that it was a “really tough audition, you had to fill out that long Google form, and then remember to show up to the workshops.” There were no auditions for this project. Most of my community-based projects are for specific communities whose lived experiences are all the only “audition” needed to participate. We do have cast members with no lived experience of incarceration. Everyone who came to the project is supposed to be here. Our lives to this point have informed us of everything we need to create this work.
Will FROM NUMBER TO NAME be a satirical take on the prison system, just as your satirical take on the political system in Kristina Wong FOR PUBLIC OFFICE? Or are you taking a more serious documentary route?
This show is very different than my solo theater work about my life which tends to use a great deal of humor and satire. That’s not to say this show is totally humorless. But I really see myself as the midwife, and that the participants have stories just waiting to be birthed. Our first few rehearsals have been a lot of guided conversations about how we remember the benchmarks in our lives, how we carry guilt and shame, and the long term effects of incarceration on Asian American communities.
What cosmic forces first brought you together with East West Players and API Rise?
My neighbor invited me to a political fundraiser for Annie Cho who was running for City Council. There I met Paul Jung who was telling me about the group he founded API RISE as a support group for formerly incarcerated folks. Paul started the group with others because his brother Ben was getting out. I was telling him about how I performed and did a workshop at San Quentin Prison for the ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves) group a few years , and it was one of the most human and profound experiences of my life to have all these stereotypes of what prison is, and then meet these Asian American men serving time inside. I started going to API Rise meetings, and loved how our family (in a good way) it felt. In the “Before times,” there is potluck dinner, and usually a casual conversation we share with each other. Then there is a “Welcome Home” cake for whoever has just gotten out and is coming to the meeting for the first time. I adore the folks in the group. It’s a rare setting where I’m with a bunch of other Asians and don’t feel this weird insecure competitive feeling. I was also very drawn to everyone’s work and stories and thinking on ways I could support everyone as a performer. It just made sense to create a performance workshop for this community.
Originally, the plan was to use the City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs grant to teach a workshop with a culminating show in person for this community. But now the workshop has to be online because of the pandemic and was cut to six weeks. East West Players happened to be looking for productions for their virtual season, and Snehal was particularly interesting in highlighting this community. So here we were… a workshop that became an offering on the EWP season!
Were you an audience member or a creative in your first experience with East West?
I first came to East West as an audience member in college when I was a student at UCLA. I also ushered shows to watch them for free. I took a few of the workshops. It wasn’t until Snehal became Producing Artistic Director, that I got invited to participate as a performer on the stage!
At what point of your national tour of Kristina Wong FOR PUBLIC OFFICE did lockdown interrupt it?
I had done my world premiere at the Skirball in February 2020. I had a college show at American River Community College at noon on March 12, 2020 in a lecture hall. It was much less glamorous than the premiere because it was in a lecture hall and had no tech, plus there was this complete anxiety that COVID was already among us. The students got a text 20 minutes before the show ended that the school was going online the next day. The rest of my tour was cancelled and we drove home early the next day.
What were the challenges in pivoting from live to virtual performances of Kristina Wong FOR OFFICE?
Kristina Wong FOR OFFICE was supposed to play out as a raucous political rally in the context, so it seemed impossible to capture that fervor and excitement on Zoom. Especially because it was so interactive and relied on live audience interaction, I was convinced the show would never pivot virtually. My director Diana Wyenn pivoted her own very specific show BLOOD SUGAR to her home. I really liked seeing how she used the natural dramaturgy of her home. She didn’t try to turn her home into a blank black box, but worked the show around animals and housemates moving through. This helped me understand how I could use the layout of my home with all its clutter and furnishings to restage the show. That said, most of our rehearsal were more technical than creative. It’s A BIG SWITCH UP from projecting to an audience to talk to a little camera on my laptop.
I think most rehearsals for Zoom theater events are mostly tech rehearsals. The first few months of the pandemic basically wiped my memory clean, and I had a hell of time remembering my lines. It’s also really distracting to work on theater at home. Now I’m used to it.
This past pandemic year has been unusual to say the least, but you found a project to give back. Tell us about the Auntie Sewing Squad you started.
Yeah, I accidentally started a shadow FEMA called Auntie Sewing Squad the first week of the pandemic. I thought that we would be a three-week stop gap to get masks on nurses, but here we are… almost a year later and still sewing masks for the most vulnerable communities because of the Federal Government’s failure to get masks on people. The best description of us is here… www.auntiesewingsquad.com/about/#whoweare It’s been an incredible way to learn about myself, how to be an ally to others, connect with other Aunties, and understand what it means to be a community of care at this time. It’s also the subject matter of my show Kristina Wong, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD.
You just virtually performed Kristina Wong, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD for Suffolk University Asian American Association. How did it go?
It was great! I’ve been doing the show every few weeks and updating as this time in isolation drags on… The way we do the show is I am pretty much performing without feedback in my home for about 70 minutes, and it’s not until I login for the Q&A do I get any sense of who is watching and what their reactions are. But from what I could tell, they were receptive to this format of me doing a show via my computer on Zoom.
I’m a second-generation Chinese-American who grew up with Kung Fu on the small screen and Flower Drum Song on the big. Who were the first Asian-American actors you were aware of and looked up to?
I actually remember watching The Mickey Mouse Club and seeing DeeDee Magno (now DeeDee Magno-Hall) on the screen and thinking she was Chinese (because every Asian in my world then was Chinese). And just watching her across the screen dancing and listening, even when she had no lines, I’d follow her on the edge of my screen. I loved how long her hair was (as a kid I just wanted to grow long hair past my butt). I loved how she looked so confident singing and dancing with the rest of the cast. I couldn’t name what it was, but it was really exciting to see someone like me among the Mouseketeers. Also I remember looking at her name in the credits thinking “Wow, what kind of Chinese last name is Magno?” Now thanks to East West Players, I’m friends with DeeDee!
This pandemic has taught me to not make plans. Right now, I’d like to just get out of the pandemic as I continue to Overlord the Auntie Sewing Squad. I am looking forward to when Aunties can meet in person, celebrate our work and our book launch. Our Auntie Sewing Squad book which has contributions from many members of our group is slated for this Fall. My dream is that when it is absolutely safe to venture out that we can have book performance parties called THE AUNTIE RETIREMENT PARTY which will look at the time and work around this strange time.
Thank you again, Kristina! I look forward to viewing all your upcoming new work.
For viewing tickets April 10th and 11th, log onto www.eastwestplayers.org
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