Writer and actor Kristina Wong talks about the complexity of comedy, the difficulty of creating sustainable art and the importance of sticking with it.
By Isa Flores-Jones '19
Kristina Wong wants you to know she isn’t a comic. “Or at least” – and here she pauses, voice crinkly on the other end of the line – “not all the time.”
When the sometime-comedian calls from Los Angeles, she is eager to speak about her newest personal narrative (and comedic) production, The Wong Street Journal, a solo theater work she will perform at Harvard on March 6.
“I thought I was going to write about global economics, about Wall Street,” she says. “Then I went to Uganda.”
Rather than discuss stockroom conversations or Wall Street ethics, The Wong Street Journal delves into other treacherous territory. The show is about voluntourism, the white-savior complex and a scathing critique of armchair activism. The artist speaks enthusiastically about stitching both literal and figurative components of the production together. (The set is almost entirely made of felt.)
Wong has been creating, acting and touring her one-woman productions since graduating from UCLA in 2000. Her
“There was an enormous roll of white paper,” she says. “And I kind of unspooled onto the stage. I was wearing all white, too. Plus a tiara. Then this enormous vagina would come onstage and dump blood all over me.”
This show made her realize that there might be room for humor in her work. Since that pivotal first show, Wong has hugely expanded her audience. Before The Journal, there was Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a semi-autobiographical depiction of mental health in Asian American communities. Sponsored by Theater, Dance and Media, Wong will offer the performance workshop “EveryONE Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” 1-3 p.m. Monday, March 6 at Farkas Hall. (The event is open to performers of all levels, but will cap at 20 participants.)
The following is an edited version of our phone conversation.
How did you start making these shows?
I created my piece right out of school. I remember because it was a couple of months after 9/11, and I was thinking that I was going to make work about other stuff – less political things – and then it felt like the bottom dropped out. I was asking myself: What’s the point of making art that’s not political? It felt sort of the way it does now. Charged. I was into the idea of being a performance artist for a living. I thought: What a cool career that would be. I had a sense it would ultimately be unsustainable. But it called to me.
You toured for eight years with Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. What was that experience like?
I toured so long that it became my life. When you’re performing the same 85-minute piece over and over again, the show becomes a prayer or a mantra. It was dark and comic, but I wasn’t evolving as a human being. In a very sick way, suicide is a recession proof topic. I would try to retire this show, but I kept getting new offers, and my new shows weren’t working. I was even asked to do it here at Harvard, but I would tell people: If I do this show again, I’m going to throw up.
I really hope to provide some space for reflection. And maybe for people to take themselves seriously, and also not so seriously. When I first toured my first show, it wasn’t funny. I would get 10 minutes into the piece, and the tears would just come and that wasn’t sustainable. I realized that the more I kept joking, the more I became a character, as opposed to “me” onstage. You know, wrestling with mental health is a lifelong thing, and no show or workshop can fix that. But if we think about being able to step outside ourselves, and maybe laugh at ourselves, then we can get a bit closer to making meaningful connections.
Would you describe yourself as a comedian?
I only started using that word to describe myself these last three years. Michael Chabon has a great essay about why writers avoid the word “comedy.” I think there’s an expectation, which is that everything has to be funny. And it’s a balance. You have to temper the material. People think a comedian means that there’s a guarantee of a laugh a minute. And that’s not so.
What’s your advice for student artists?
It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. Very naively, the first few shows in, I thought something would happen. What I’ve learned is that you just have to keep going. You can’t just produce the same kind of work. I learned really fast how the snake is going to eat its tail. If I kept making the work about my about art, about myself, it wasn’t sustainable. So that’s what I hope to bring to campus. There’s no finish line you cross. Maybe that’s the narrative of public success: that you make it and everything is handed to you. It’s a lie. You have to constantly keep making new things.