Comedian Kristina Wong’s staged memoir of the democratic process caps off 2020’s tumultuous political season
By Audrey Cleo Yap
Kristina Wong is running for public office. Well, actually, she already did: the performance artist and comedian is a member of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Sub-district 5 Neighborhood Council, a position she was voted into. And in an instance certainly of art imitating life, Wong has turned the process of becoming an elected official — albeit an unpaid one — into a one-woman show.
“Kristina Wong for Public Office” is a zany, 75-minute semi-autobiographical meditation on Wong’s recent creative life, the history of voting and the red tape of democracy. She first started developing the show in 2018, inspired by the failure of her reality TV show pilot and an ill-conceived first run for public office as an assembly district delegate, which she lost. (The story goes that Wong, at the urging of a friend, consumed an edible and, in her haze, signed up to be on the ballot).
In it, an energetic Wong swiftly goes from opining about the hurdles she faced trying to get her pilot off the ground to talking about how campaign rallies used to serve as hook-up hubs for single people to the petty comments she hears at neighborhood council meetings about whether or not to hand out hygiene kits to the homeless.
Originally, Wong had planned to tour alongside the presidential campaigns of 2020. But with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, Wong had to quickly adapt the stage show into a digital format that could be performed over video conferencing platform Zoom; she did a taped version at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in October, in partnership with The Broad Stage in Santa Monica and Center Theatre Group. It’s available on-demand through Nov. 29.
“It’s weird to not be inside the show. Like, I’m so used to physically being present and seeing my audience,” she says, calling the Zoom version a sort of “object dance” that requires her to maneuver her computer around her home. Occasionally, viewers are reminded that she is, indeed, homebound: her house slippers have made a cameo.
“I’m Chinese. I don’t wear shoes in my house. I’m not an animal,” she deadpans.
Among the technical challenges of adapting the show for Zoom, says director and dramaturg Diana Wyenn, was making sure sounds could be properly cued and heard by viewers. After experimenting with speakers and, at one point, trying to trigger sounds via Google remote, they settled on rigging two computers that could run Zoom simultaneously. Like in a stage show, Wong is able to interact with audience members via chat and unmute them if need be. In total, Wyenn says they’ve made three versions of the show — stage, taped and Zoom.
“It was always the audience that we had in mind — what kind of experience are they going to have of this material?” says Wyenn, “because we want them to have just a riotous adventure with Kristina.”
Something that’s made clear in the show’s taped version. Clad in a suffragette’s white pantsuit, Wong takes center stage in an otherwise empty theater, against a backdrop of colorful, handsewn felt banners, but not before opening the piece in an Elvis-inspired beaded cape. At one point, she beams to a white male audience member to “endorse” her.
Like a true politician, Wong has adapted her message for the medium. “So, like all these big booming speeches that I would give on a stage for hundreds of people when I did this live in February are now pulled down to [be] very intimate — just address one person who’s at home, also in isolation,” she says.
But for Wong, all politics and political campaigning are performance art. Her show, she says, has allowed her to process the events around her, which includes everything from the pandemic to the latest, bureaucracy-riddled neighborhood council meeting. The former has led to another venture for Wong, as head of the Auntie Sewing Squad, a group that makes masks and gathers medical supplies for populations most at-risk during the pandemic. The group’s work has inspired her next show, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” which she is currently developing.
As for her political future, though, Wong is uncertain. Her seat on the neighborhood council is up in April of next year, and Wong says she will likely run again. But as for more ambitious political seats, she is hesitant. She points to a local contest for a city council seat — where one candidate has been sending out mailers with a mugshot-like picture of his opponent — and hypothesizes what mud-slinging mailers would be crafted about her.
“I think I have actual pictures of me holding dildos and stuff like that,” she says. “I have the gamut. Every day, I make future slur materials.”
She adds that her political presence has offered some perks, like speaking at events with people like Congressman Ted Lieu. And, ultimately, being at the cross-section of art and politics is not an unnatural position for her to be in.
“Politicians,” she muses, “are just actors in a public space.”
To watch “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” visit centertheatregroup.org. Tickets are $10 for digital stage access through Nov. 29.