Kristina Wong is a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Drama. She’s a performance artist, comedian, writer, and elected representative who has been presented internationally across North America, the U.K., Hong Kong, and Africa. Before taking part in “What Can We Laugh About?,” she chatted in our green room about Koreatown’s permanent yard sales, why she uses Shark Tank in theater workshops, and the joys of being a food bank influencer.
Your mutual-aid volunteer coalition, the “Auntie Sewing Squad,” has made more than hundreds of thousands of masks since the start of the pandemic—what is the most memorable material you’ve used?
We have a lot of fabric stories from [Sweatshop Overlord, which comes to San Diego this week]. We had one auntie, Auntie Leilani, who cut up her hula costumes, which went into the first batch of masks to the Navajo Nation. And to me that feels significant because it was like the Hawaiian culture, which is always sort of on the brink of erasure, trying to protect the Navajo culture from literally being erased.
A huge congratulations, also, for being named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Drama for Sweatshop Overlord. What’s the best way you’ve celebrated?
I got so much free celebratory food. People just were like, we want to celebrate, and I’m like yes, let's celebrate! My friend Glen Curado, who runs the World Harvest Food Bank in Los Angeles, invited two tables of aunties at a Chinese banquet restaurant. He said, I'm not even going to look at the menu, I’m going to tell them to just bring food out and keep bringing it out. So that was really wonderful to be there with the aunties, with him, all these people who were part of the show.
I really did not think I had a shot at it. I’m a solo artist, I never finished graduate school, and I live in L.A! I'm still just having moments where I see “Pulitzer finalist” over the posters—and I'm going, is that me? Two, three years ago, I was cutting up old shirts that people were dropping off at my house and telling another auntie, no, you're not going to cut up your kid’s underpants!
Speaking of World Harvest Food Bank, you’re also a self-appointed “food bank influencer.” What’s the coolest thing that’s come out of that so far?
CalFresh asked me to be part of their photo campaign and I was like, not only a food bank influencer, but a food stamps influencer?! I think just turning people on to World Harvest Food Bank, which is at Arlington and Venice in Los Angeles, has been the biggest joy because it's such an amazing resource that is still very underutilized. Four hours of volunteer work is worth a $55 donation—and you can get a gigantic, heaping cart of groceries for that. I usually show up with four different aunties, so we go in at 11 bucks apiece, and we have enough food for 2-3 weeks. It’s like being on Supermarket Sweep. It is like being on Chopped. All these reality shows of excess and food and surprise all at once. I love it.
What is your favorite reality TV show?
I feel like Shark Tank is so theater. The presentation those entrepreneurs make? It has a beginning, a middle, and end—the story of why that they chose to give up their six-figure jobs to sell honey pretzels. When I teach workshops in theater classes, I actually have them do Shark Tank-esque presentations because it encapsulates all the plot points that a long-form play might.
You once created a full-length ensemble piece called Cat Lady and you have a beautiful cat yourself. What's your strangest cat fact?
My cat was fixed late in life, so he humps me late at night. It’s making reason with those sort of modern parenting questions. How does one deal with issues of shame and sexuality? But with my cat! I don’t want to shame him for masturbating. I'm not going to scold him. I just want him to be free.
What’s one thing you’ve learned serving on the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council?
It’s just so frustrating. I don't want to discourage people, but we're just having a really hard time as a neighborhood council because we've had so many people drop out that for months we couldn't have any meetings. We're in what's called exhaustive efforts where we had to get special permission to meet quorum with only five people so that we could give away our little pot of I think $30,000 to the community. It makes me sad. Some didn't even make it to the first meeting. Many felt bullied and left. But I'm hanging in there because it's a good credit for my bio—oh, yes, and also the people, the community.
Where's your favorite place to go in K-town?
I love that strip of Eighth Street near Irolo, which I call Little Oaxaca. A lot of vendors are cooking things on shopping carts. It's so entrepreneurial. The first time I bought food off the carts, someone fried a whole tilapia for me! They had a burner, they poured oil in. It was like $5. There's what I call the permanent yard sale of Koreatown, which is basically the people who are always selling things off a fence. I’ve bought red carpet dresses there—I can’t remember the designer, but it's a pretty significant designer [whose dress] I bought for $3. And then there used to be a phenomenon of Zumba studios in an empty storefront for 3 bucks. That's how I used to work out when I wasn't on tour. But now it's hard to do group workout classes [in COVID]. But it was just like such a yes, the community is making a gorilla effort to take care of itself and get fitness on its own.
What's one of the hardest parts of being working artists today?
Mostly it's around stability and finances—the fact that we're read as non-essential and we’re always having to advocate that our work has purpose and value. There's a whole business of working as an artist. That was a really hard thing for me at the beginning, just to kind of stay afloat as an artist, manage all the paperwork of stuff, but also think creatively and constantly spit out ideas. It's hard to think with both heads.