Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: An ‘Overlord’ unmasked

Kristina Wong's "Sweatshop Overlord" is a sharp and heartwarming look behind the politics of Covid. Plus: The Shakespeare Festival's big gift.

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Kristina Wong stars in “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” a co-production between Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

To begin her show Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord at Portland Center Stage, Wong, a performance artist from Los Angeles, takes care of a little house business right up front: greeting the audience, delivering the now-standard Native-lands acknowledgement, and issuing a gentle warning that some of the show’s contents may be disturbing. She adds that the “show runs 90 minutes to 454-ish days long,” then launches into the meat of the matter: “Friends, let me bring you back to March, 2020.”

A ripple of discomfort, palpable and even slightly audible, runs through the crowd. To which Wong responds, “That’s why I prepped you with the trigger warning!”

Fortunately, Wong’s energetic and uplifting look back at our recent trying times feel like a highly entertaining 90 minutes and not at all like 454-ish days of mixed anxiety, boredom and turmoil. But make no mistake: Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord is very much a show about the era of the Covid-19 pandemic at its sudden and strangely prolonged height. It was, she recalls, “very Book of Exodus stuff: Stay inside and put some lamb’s blood on the door.” And in that scenario, forewarned isn’t quite forearmed, or even vaccinated – though it is a little like being psychically masked.

Masks, after all, are at the heart of the show, as they came to be the heart of Wong’s pandemic experience. As The New York Times synopsized it when the show premiered there last year:

“While Wong was stuck at home in Los Angeles, she stayed busy leading the Auntie Sewing Squad, a volunteer group of mostly Asian American women she founded in March 2020 to make face masks for health care workers, farm workers, incarcerated people and others. She recruited 6-year-old children, her 73-year-old mother and others for the operation, which ballooned to more than 800 ‘Aunties,’ a cross-cultural term of respect and affection for women, as well as ‘Uncles’ and nonbinary volunteers in 33 states. Together, they distributed more than 350,000 masks.”

The show’s title plays on the irony of an Asian-American woman taking charge of Asian-Americans, including children, doing such textile work. But Wong doesn’t actually attend too much to the implications of ethnicity in her endeavor, except when touching on the rise of anti-Asian hate, which unfairly placed blame for the pandemic on some of those who were working hard to stem its awful tide.

Instead, Wong leans more into an implicitly political view, locating her motivation for the effort in the galling lack of a sufficient governmental response to the crisis. As she recounts the times in performance, she comes across not so much as a sweatshop overlord as a humanitarian commando, stalking the stage, sometimes crawling on her belly to illustrate a point, replicating the sense of urgency and whatever-it-takes spirit that powered her through a period of confusion and scarce resources. 

As she told the Times, “With this show, I wanted to find a way to tell the story that’s more than us just being beat up, beat up, beat up, but also about how we survived.” But the beatings are in there: Covid surges, anti-masking protests, the murder of George Floyd, rampant wildfires, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the increased danger to abortion rights, anti-Asian violence. I don’t recall if she fits in a murder hornet reference, but you get the picture. 

Even so, it is a story of survival and, arguably, of success, and as such, it’s heartwarming, even inspiring – especially in how clearly it evokes the loving camaraderie that develops among the “Aunties,” Wong’s “warriors behind sewing machines.”

At one point, Wong notes that she and her fellow volunteers had the time to take on the mask-making project because they were homebound and unemployed as “non-essential workers.” But, she says, “we became essential.”

This show helps remind us that they always really were.

Mega millions

“The Cymbeline Project,” the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s video series examining aspects of Shakespeare’s late play, is currently streaming.

The past few years have been tumultuous times at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with major schedule disruptions caused by Covid-19 and the smoke from Western wildfires, and even threats from self-styled purists against artistic director Nataki Garrett, as she alters the festival according to her progressivist vision of “bold theater-making intersecting with the digital realm; industry-forward inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility work; and centering artists as thought leaders and changemakers who transform culture.”

 But there’s good news in the form of a $10 million grant recently awarded by the Hitz Foundation.

The grant, to be paid over the next five years, comes without restrictions on how it can be spent, which should provide Garrett and executive director David Schmitz greater flexibility in addressing the festival’s many challenges. According to an OSF press release about the grant, attendance at the festival since it returned from a lengthy shutdown has been at 46% of its pre-pandemic level.

Sponsor
Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

“This generous gift comes at a critical time for OSF as we continue our recovery and lay the foundation for the long-term stability and success of this beloved theater,” the release quotes Garrett.

Closing

Tessa May and Roan Shea in “Blink,” closing this weekend at Third Rail Rep. Photo: Owen Carey

Lights dim this weekend on several shows around Portland: Profile Theatre’s charmingly energetic King of the Yees, a surprisingly moving metatheatrical romp through issues of family loyalty and Chinese-American cultural identity; Third Rail Rep’s Blink, a two-hander about human connection as a path through grief; Death by Hanging, “an existential whodunit set in an execution chamber” that’s been filling the 21ten Theater; the Broadway bus-and-trucker Jagged Little Pill, set to the angsty alt-rock of Alanis Morissette; and the Oregon Children’s Theatre musical Dog Man, who’s been a very good boy but is going off to play at a farm upstate.

Weekender

As part of an ongoing November arts festival, Newport’s Porthole Players present A Comedy of Terrors, an improv mash-up of Shakespeare and Frankenstein, apparently first devised by the folks at Portland’s Funhouse Lounge.

The flattened stage

Should you wish to sharpen your banter for upcoming holidays with family, you might consider …

The best line I read this week

“Tesla Parents

Quiet, attractive, and ostensibly better for the world, but loathed by other parents for their sanctimonious bullshit.

Peloton Parents

Want the world to believe that they’re in great shape and up for any challenge, but, when it comes right down to it, they’re just watching TV.”

– from a humor piece by Jay Martel, in The New Yorker, about alternatives to “helicopter parents.”

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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