It’s Day 422 of Kristina Wong’s Auntie Sewing Squad. Or it was the day I watched this streaming performance via New York Theatre Workshop called Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord.
In March 2020, Wong, a performance artist with her touring work cancelled, started to create PPE for health care workers and firefighters across the US. Sewing masks on her Hello Kitty sewing machine, she quickly created a Facebook group, the Auntie Sewing Squad as a way to organize the effort and find others to help keep up with the urgent requests she was getting.
Volunteers took out their sewing machines and began to make masks. They scrounged for elastic and fabric. Bin Laden was easier find than elastic she complains. The group got larger as demand increased. They expanded from providing masks to just health care workers to farm workers, incarcerated people and Indigenous nations.
This solo show documents this and the ongoing efforts of the group who are still sending masks to migrants at the border and unhoused people. Wong performs in what looks like her house and then sometimes against a Zoom backdrop that varies (images of California wildfires, a Stop Asian Hate march, and an opium den pop up). She gives a play-by-play of how the past year went down for her.
“Is America a banana republic disguised as a democracy?” is Wong’s political refrain throughout the show. She refers to the sewing group as “shadow FEMA” and she sees them as stepping into the shoes of government, where government failed to act. Yet, this is all unpaid labor done mostly by women. She exhausts herself in managing the effort, onboarding new sewers, and taking on more and more requests because every mask could save a life.
Throughout the show, Wong also touches on the history of Asian American garment workers, the violence against Asians and Asian Americans during the pandemic, and the long-arc of Asian Americans being kept out of the history of America.
She is covering events many of us have lived through over the past year, but her frantic exhaustion feels most acute. Something that she imagined would be short-term has just kept going and it has taken over her life (and living room) yet remains vital.
While the CDC’s announcement this week that vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in most situations might alleviate the demands on the Sewing Squad, Wong expresses trepidation.
First, many people are unvaccinated and not everyone can protect themselves. But she has also wrapped up so much of her identity into this creation that the letting go of it is a whole other issue she faces. Who is she after being the Sewing Squad’s Sweatshop Overlord?
For many people, the unwinding of our traumas is the next phase of this pandemic. If we’ve learned anything from people’s behavior over the past year, this will again be something that we each experience differently. We cannot know everyone else’s individual experience and we are all moving at different paces. This “pause” has changed many of us. Wong may not be the only one wondering how to move forward.
In some ways, I didn’t want to relive the past year through this show—those 422 days have felt like forever. Lately, I have had my eyes so focused on a glimpse of a hopeful post-vaccine tomorrow. To get to that tomorrow, I need to put all these painful yesterdays behind me. In addition, the 80-minute show could be tighter. Wong’s thesis can sometimes get a little lost. At times, it left me wondering about the “Aunties” involved. I wished for a little more sense of other voices in this effort alongside Wong (we do see photos of the Aunties on Zoom calls).
But these nits were balanced against the important and urgent argument Wong makes for this show being an effort to document Asian American history when so much of it has been erased and unseen. Her group started as mostly Chinese women behind sewing machines. There is a history to this particular labor by women of color. She wants to draw an arc between those ancestors and the present.
But I think a critical part of the show is that Wong pushes out the lens a bit beyond the mask-making to point out how self-organized mutual aid is needed right now in so many ways. The Auntie Sewing Squad delivered fabric to the Navajo Nation and materials to create hand-washing stations. They knitted scarves and hats for folks at Standing Rock and for unhoused people.
It’s not that these women (and even children) just took up sewing to help their communities. It was a matter of life and death in this instance. But the fact that they had to is the real issue.