Kristina Wong Takes on Race and Hashtag Activism in Her One-Woman Show 'The Wong Street Journal'
Last winter, I caught up with performance artist Kristina Wong while she was doing a residency at the Montalvo Arts Center just outside Silicon Valley, developing material for her new one-woman show "The Wong Street Journal". There in a loft, she was writing material as well as doing the less glamorous work of sewing felt props for her show, which opens this week in her hometown of San Francisco. I checked in with Kristina again recently to find out what's new.
Image Credit: Amy Tierney
Grace Hwang Lynch: You’re not afraid to take on issues such as race and gender, but usually it’s been centered around the Asian American women’s experience — whether your spoofs about interracial dating fetishes, your performance art as Jeremy Lin’s bride, or even dressing up as a giant vagina. But I understand the Wong Street Journal is inspired by your trip to Uganda, where you didn’t really fit into the concepts of race…
Kristina Wong: I had been touring "Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" since 2006. It's my show about the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. I was lucky to tour the show so long and to be one of the rare solo theater artists who could say she was making a living at this, but I think the lifespan of that show (and two subsequent shows that mined autobiographical material) creatively killed me. I decided that if I was going to spend three to eight years working on a live show, it might as well be about something I knew very little about so that I could keep learning as the process continued. So that's how I ended up in Northern Uganda volunteering with a microloan organization, doing research on a show I only knew would be called "The Wong Street Journal." I didn't realize just how difficult it would be to grapple with my Western privilege every day. It's one thing to be in my armchair in Los Angeles, calling out privilege from my iPhone on social media, it's another thing to be moving through a situation on a minute to minute basis where I was clearly benefiting from white privilege and can't just tackle my grievances in a hashtag war.
I had been told to expect that I'd be a Mzungu (or "white person") over there, but I didn't realize how white I would feel. There are several incidents that I humorously recount in the show about what "white guilt" made me succumb to. I was such a fish out of water, so clearly privileged It got to the point that when a kid would scream, "Chinese!" when I walked by them that I actually was happy that someone saw me as not white.
The trip changed everything about how I view the African continent, how I view charity, how I understand race. I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about how Asian Americans are used as a “wedge” between white people and other people of color. I’ve been thinking about how I sometimes benefit from white privilege and how to both confront and capitalize on that privilege and use it towards the existing social justice movements to liberate black lives.
GHL: And social media is a big theme in your show, too, right?
KW: Social media activism definitely frames the world of the play and one of the coolest features in the show is that I've sewn all my set and props in felt! This includes handsewn hashtags and a felt replica of an iPad!
The world I set up at the top of the play is me as a woman whose value weighs on her ability to get likes, shares, comments and retweets. I describe the thrill of watching my content go viral. The victory of garnering more followers when I effectively call out injustice on the internet. But quickly, it's a world that becomes so myopic and insular, that I'm compelled to go to Africa to see if a more significant legacy is possible, only to find that my presence may not be doing much good at all.
This is not too far from the truth of my life in 2013. I had written viral posts for xoJane that catapulted my career into TV appearances. It was thrilling but also disheartening that I was suddenly "hot" because of my ability to piss white people off on the Internet. I have a whole other body of more nuanced theater work that wasn't getting the same interest. And I wondered if there was any value in non-clickbaity creative work.
My development process while in Uganda was uploading my photos and observations on my Facebook timeline. I was really affected when a handful of friends (who've since unfriended me) started to attack me in passive aggressive comments online for the photos and commentary I was posting. Sometimes they would just write "problematic" under a photo and not much else. The thing is, I'm still not sure how to best be in Uganda with the inherent inequities between me and Ugandan people and not have any photo or caption feel problematic. The whole situation of Westerners in the developing world can be construed as problematic. It was frustrating because I felt like it was a clear example of how social media activism is great at calling out and shaming people for their wrongs, but very rarely is willing to allow people to have vulnerable human experiences where they can be allowed to get things wrong and try better.
Image Credit: Diana Wyenn
GHL: "The Wong Street Journal" has already been performed in Southern California and New York. What was the reception like?
KW: I also previewed the show in Vermont! The previews have been very encouraging and helped me a learn a lot about how my artistic choices have gone over to different regional audiences. In general, this material has been completely intimidating. My director/ dramaturg and I sat for hundreds of hours together filleting every word and idea. I’m very aware how little information my audience has about what I’m talking about, and I am also aware of what context they are bringing to my show that frames their viewing. It’s about trying to dismantle that framework to also let the story breathe. Trying to keep the content funny enough to watch was a whole other challenge.
I completely recognize that as an American doing a show about my time in Uganda, I could easily be written off as an self-absorbed Eat Pray Love-esque memoir of a woman who finds herself among poor indigenous people. I risk misrepresenting the lives of Ugandan people or futher "othering" a population that most Americans don't know that much about. So far the reception has been really great. I credit this to the long development process of this work.
GHL: You're also one of the few Asian American women who’s been a guest on shows like “Totally Biased with Kamau Bell” (RIP) and Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”. Comedy, especially at this level, is notoriously brash and you wrote a piece comparing "The Nightly Show" experience to a panicked orgy. What was going through your mind as the only woman on that panel — and especially the only Asian woman, since the topic was the casting of Emma Stone as a mixed-race Hawaiian-Chinese character?
KW: I'm not upset at all with Larry or the other comedians for how much more they talked than me, though I was surprised how much the Internet seems to have gotten upset for me. Those guys were doing their job, they were telling the jokes they tell, and the nature of the three comedian panel format is a beast. I had all these zingers planned but the talent coordinator said to me before I went on, "Just be yourself and speak to your experience". This was both encouraging but also made it confusing when to pull out the anecdotes, the zingers, or the big picture wisdom. I'm glad I got a few quotables out there, but the whole time my head was spinning with "Talk dammit! Why don't you talk!!?!"
I am fairly new to the panel format and still getting my sea legs. I did similar panels for ABC and Huffington Post this year and every time I've been on one, I'm hyper aware of how fast time moves, how Asian Americans watching me don't want me to fuck up and "make the whole race look bad." In my head, I'm scrambling for any of the two dozen jokes and observations I've prepared and trying to figure out when to best jump in while trying to hear everyone else. It's not an easy format and you have to be so tough to really get your voice in there.
GHL: What’s in store for you?
KW: I have a memoir and some film projects I'm working on. It's a really fertile time for me.
I think I'll always make plays and am already thinking up the next one. I've not been to China yet, and I'm in the embryonic stages of writing a play about the Rise of China as a country now unrecognizable to my grandparents who fled from there. I'm also interested in writing about Vermont in the same play. After touring in Vermont, I am fascinated in it as the total converse of China--a very white, very rural state that seems to be one of the last American states that is consciously resisting big box culture. It could change but that's the initial idea I'm playing with!
The Wong Street Journal plays at Z Below in San Francisco June 17-21. More tours are planned for Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and other American cities. The the events page at KristinaWong.com for more details.
News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.
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