Review: KRISTINA WONG, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD at Portland Center Stage

This production runs through December 18.

By: Nov. 18, 2022
Review: KRISTINA WONG, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD at Portland Center Stage
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Are you ready to laugh about the events that took place between March 2020 and September 2021? I know, it's a bit of a tough sell, but if laughter is the best medicine, then Kristina Wong, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD is at least a partial cure for any existential dread still hanging around. The one-person show, starring its creator Kristina Wong, is currently running at Portland Center Stage in a co-production with Boom Arts.

Kristina Wong, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD is about the Auntie Sewing Squad, a group Wong formed on March 24, 2020, to sew masks for essential workers. The original idea was that it would be a three-week thing because the pandemic would be short-lived and the government would provide free masks. We all know how that worked out. The Aunties began as a group of primarily Asian and Asian-American women (including Kristina's mother) who were connected to the garment industry and/or had learned to sew from their mothers and grandmothers. They ended up donating 350,000 masks to vulnerable populations.

It's a good story and also a story in very good hands. It starts with Wong in a sewing room, working on her Hello Kitty sewing machine, surrounded by giant tomato pin cushions. Almost all of the brightly colored props have been sewn, including the boxes Wong uses to mail masks and even her cellphone. It's a comforting room, one where you could jump around and not worry about falling and hitting your head on anything hard.

Then Wong pulls off her black jumpsuit to reveal a camo-ish tank top, puts on elbow pads, and straps on an ammunition belt. Think Rambo, but with sewing materials (she carries a pair of oversized scissors, the ammo in her belt is spools of thread). This imagery lifts the story to a strange place of fantasy that somehow heightens the reality. Many parts of 2020 did feel like a war, one in which fabric and elastic (there's a good bit on this) were much more effective weapons against the nebulous threat than any real weapons would have been.

Ths play is highly physical, with Wong jumping onto platforms (i.e., large plush tomatoes) and crawling through imaginary trenches. vacillating between overlord of her mask-making sweatshop operation and dealing with the difficulties and anxieties of those 18 months. It's very funny, though a lot of the laughter comes with a hefty dose of despair, because while the idea of a sewing Rambo seems silly, we all just lived through that war and we know that the story she's telling is true.

Wong is a skilled playwright and performer. If you can handle a play about the pandemic while we are in many ways still dealing with the pandemic, you should definitely check it out. Kristina Wong, SWEATSHOP OVERLORD runs through December. 18. More details and tickets here.


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