If this is indeed the year that Asian-Americans are getting a shot at mainstream TV representation, then we have to credit the performers who bucked the status quo and cultivated real reputations for being fearlessly anti-stereotype long before “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Master of None” even went into development.
Kristina Wong is one of those performers. The comedian and performance artist has built a reputation by eviscerating dominant culture’s expectations of Asian-American women. She has written about Asian fetishism, tackled the silence around mental health and even feuded with James Franco.
Her latest project, the solo multimedia “The Wong Street Journal,” uses narrative storytelling, an elaborate stage and irreverent songs to tell the story of a recent trip to Uganda to collaborate with local rappers (yeah, you read that right). And it begins a theatrical run at Los Angeles’s REDCAT theater tonight. In anticipation of the debut, we asked Wong about the show, AAPI representation in entertainment and Asian-Americans’ role in contemporary activism.
The set for "The Wong Street Journal" is really elaborate. How long did it take you to write the show and put it together in this form? Also, what compelled you to do a multimedia show on this scale?
I went to Uganda in October 2013 and world-premiered the show in San Francisco June 2015. I previewed the show in around 10 very different engagements in six US cities. I had been thinking about the show and applying for funding for two years before leaving for Uganda. The show didn’t really start kicking into shape until I came back.
The sewing of the entire set and all the props was a happy accident. I sew to blow off steam the way writers chain smoke cigarettes to relax. I kept my sewing machine in the rehearsal space I used at Montalvo Arts Center where I was in residence for two months writing this show. Sewing was like my end-of-night cigarette. I’d stitch up things as my breather from [the] day’s mindfuck of trying to explain the Ugandan Civil War to an American audience while somehow staying a comedian.
I was struggling with how to describe a Twitter war and the total insanity of how social media political debates play out—the backdrop of my world before I left for Uganda. I said to my director, "What if I sewed felt hashtags and flung them at the audience like Ninja Stars?" We both got really excited and decided (not realizing it would take hundreds of hours) to sew the whole New York Stock Exchange and all the props out of felt. It just made the whole show so much more playful and meticulously-considered. There are some pretty heavy things I talk about in the show and I can’t imagine doing this show without the inviting aesthetic of this hand-sewn felt set.
The show contains a considerable amount of video and photos from my time in Uganda, including video footage of me in a music studio with local rappers making music. So much of my notes and process was in posts I made on social media, [and] it seemed a necessary element of the piece. Plus, it would really be hard otherwise for people to believe I made a rap album with locals in Uganda.
You carved a particular name for yourself even before the rising fame of programs like "Fresh Off The Boat" and folks like Constance Wu and Randall Park. Do you look at this increased visibility of Asian-American performers, outside of traditional stereotyped roles, as an improvement from when you were starting out?
Ha! I don’t know if this question is a testament to how long I’ve been at it or how not-famous I still am. I actually know Randall and was in his theater company at UCLA! I learned a ton from watching how he thinks and works. And I am grateful that I got to see a lot of Asian-American work that early on in my creative process.
I definitely believe that the range of roles available to Asian Americans is more varied than ever, but we still have a long way to go. At that, I always wrote my own material because getting cast in anything on TV is such a horrendous process. I could only play so many giggly Harajuku girls early in my career to know that this was not going to be my artistic legacy on the world. I know that it’s going to be a long wait for a network to produce a show about a third-generation Chinese American who catapulted to rap stardom in Northern Uganda (ahem…the story line of "The Wong Street Journal") so I had to put the story onstage myself.
Do you think that Asian Americans, particularly Asian-American performers and artists, have a particular role to play in contemporary activism and movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15?
This is the time for Asian Americans to get opinionated on something other than businesses on Yelp. If the number of Asian women had the same damning critique of capitalism as they did the new brunch place, we could have flipped the system already.
It’s a critical moment where #BlackLivesMatter, a hashtag movement started in a living room, is now a debate topic by both Democrats and the GOP. And for Asian Americans who are tech savvy and don’t want to take to the streets, this could be the easiest way we could find civic engagement. This is the moment for Asian Americans to think about intersectionality. The GOP wants to derail conversations about race and white privilege by presenting Asian Americans as the "model minority" and an example of a race that "pulled itself up by its bootstraps" to get ahead, as a way to alienate black and brown folks for not finding the same “success." All this really does is further drive a wedge between people of color and silence the voices of Asian Americans who continue to experience racism and discrimination and who are struggling economically.
Asian American creatives are going to be the force that shifts culture and public conversation, which needs to happen before we can shift policy.