The following Q&A with performance artist, comedienne, and political activist Kristina Wong took place after the world premiere of her one-woman show “The Wong Street Journal” at the Z Theater in San Francisco’s Mission district this summer. The show details Wong’s grant-funded trip to rural Uganda to assist a local NGO dedicated to working with female entrepreneurs. Originally meant to tackle issues of global poverty, the performance evolved into a travelogue about Wong’s experience as an Asian American social media activist grappling with the starkly different identity politics of Uganda, where her status as a foreigner and the dual legacies of colonialism and civil war forced her to reconsider her own political privilege. Memorable scenes include Wong accidentally stumbling into a hip-hop studio when looking for a late night snack, her struggles with being called a white person by locals and the inordinate benefits that entails, and being the victim of a witch hunt on social media. Written and performed by Kristina Wong and directed by Emily Mendelsohn, “The Wong Street Journal” moves to The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts (REDCAT) Theater in Los Angeles from November 12 – November 15. For updates, please visit www.kristinawong.com.
How do you feel now about the show and its development?
I was really hyperaware and nervous about this material. Talking about African people and presenting Ugandan faces on screen is a lot of responsibility. I found presenting photo portraits especially uncomfortable. How would I feel if people did the equivalent to pictures of my family? There are so many ways it could go wrong.
People took issue with my posting of photos on Facebook while in Uganda, and I can see why. In my mind, it was so vivid and emotionally fraught, but images without context, uploaded during brief windows of Internet connectivity, can seem problematic like a bad issue of National Geographic. Rather than give up and not do the show at all, I spent a long time and lost a lot of hair combing out my more complicated thoughts, leading the show towards social justice issues, and dealing with that frustration.
Questions such as, “What are you trying to say?” kept coming up. As activists we talk easily about what we don’t want but very rarely about what we do want. It was very easy to feel defensive and argue, “This is not what I’m trying to do; I’m not trying to do that!” But there’s only so much you can yell at “the man” who’s not even in the room. We actually have to confront day-to-day the fact that maybe we did not grow up with this level of political conscientiousness and must learn that awareness.
My director and I talked about how this is not a show about Uganda, it is a show about me. Getting over that alleviated a lot of pressure. Even now, or before I went to Uganda, I would have said that I was a very progressive person, but I had to un-work many deeply held thoughts about people on the African continent. Everything looks like a monolith before you get there.
Why offer a disclaimer before impersonating the voices of your Ugandan colleagues, such as Bukenya?
Which I can’t even do, right? I tried to study that accent and we even debated not using an accent at all. In ideal circumstances, I would bring them over instead of impersonating them, poorly at that. My director Emily actually lived in Uganda on a Fulbright to work with local actors for a six-year project, doing work that I am not willing to commit to, and going on international exchange with Africans coming to America.
Bukenya came to one of the showings in the developmental process, and that was a great challenge. It’s easy to bring back photos and a story without ever having to worry that the people that we talk about show up and see it. He doesn’t travel a lot, but part of Bukenya’s role is to come on exchange. We were able to fit him into an event where he told his story, and during the presentation I could just refer directly to him and ask for clarification. It was a good challenge to think, “If my friends in Uganda came to watch, would they feel honored?” I still struggle with that. I’m sending them a clip of it and hopefully they will feel good about it.
How does this show fit into your overall political and artistic mission?
I’m interested of late in asking the more difficult questions. As an artist who grew up in California and has seen a lot of the Asian American work, I’m always interested in trying to make work that I wanted to see: crazier, more vulnerable, less ranting, and less reductive work that comes clean about our contradictions, approaching them with humor instead of self-victimization.
I acknowledge that I grew up with privilege. I’m not saying that I am the equivalent of a privileged white person, that’s not a good equivalency to make. Yet, I’m always interested in how to talk about issues that we don’t discuss in the community, and if it takes throwing out clickbait essays or getting dressed up as a vagina, that’s fine. Let that be what it is. The importance is the dialogue that it’s putting forth.
Your being called a Mzungu, the local term for white people or Europeans, plays a significant part in the show, with your record producer Nerio coming on to you because of that perceived status. How did that recasting of your identity affect you?
Assuming that people knew my progressive politics, I figured audiences would also find it humorous that people in Uganda kept referring to me as white. Many people neither saw the irony nor found it strange that I began to own that title after a while.
It’s crazy because it’s one thing that I have to present myself in the show, but I also had to reframe myself to an audience so they don’t just read me as an Asian woman and what they think that means. Laying out a framework at the beginning of the show also helps set the context for why these tidbits, such as being called European or breaking my sobriety, were so significant. Being called white is not a compliment to me, and I think playing into that guilt is funny, significant, and hopefully deep.
Nerio told me once that he wanted me to find him a Mzungu wife. He said, “A producer like me deserves a Mzungu wife.” I actually slapped my hand on the table and said, “Black is beautiful! Black is beautiful!” And I had to ask myself, “Am I really doing this right now? In Africa?”
If anything, I’m not saying that Asians are basically white, but it sort of alludes to what whiteness is. It is power. It is privilege. It’s being able to just be somewhere and not be interrogated for why you shouldn’t actually be there. Anyone with a certain amount of outsized privilege falls in this big category that is whiteness.
Well, extrapolating from that then when you talk about white guilt in the show, you say, “Feeling white guilt made me drink.” In that sense, white people do not necessarily even own white guilt.
Yeah, it is the guilt of having access that others don’t, but it’s still unclear how to deal with it. The superficial answer is, “Here, have my stuff! Take my old clothes.” But that doesn’t do anything because the procurement of those goods was made possible through exploitation. So, it’s not just a matter of returning stuff or giving things back. It’s really a whole systemic thing that, as a performance artist, I don’t know that I can unwind quickly, but I think that the answer is in supporting peoples’ efforts at self-determination.
You had a line about how your voice always sounds sarcastic, which seemed inappropriate during an award ceremony. Then when trying to be sincere, you use this domestic, little Asian girl voice instead. What is the internal mechanism happening there?
Even in politicized events you see super powerful women speaking softly and sweetly (Wong uses the voice here), and it’s where all of this weird tension comes up in the community because if we only scream then audiences cringe. We don’t even know what we’re supposed to sound like sometimes.
I’m casual whenever holding a microphone in performance settings, but this specifically happened in my head when handing out this big award for female entrepreneurs. These women have gone through crazy shit, and I don’t know that being funny and casual will read as honorable.
In that same ceremony, I sat in an empty chair and Bukenya came up to me and said, “In our country it is disrespectful to sit in front of an elected official.” I moved immediately after turning around and apologizing in horror. Afterward, another colleague asked, “Oh my God Kristina, what did you do?” I felt like a walking offense. I was just trying to be little, yet I was in this position where I was a big deal.
That is the contradictory Asian American position though, right? Used as a symbolic wedge but made to feel like a “walking offense” at the same time.
Totally true. Like a lot of guerrilla theater, so much of the work that I do is about countering. I think it’s just me acting out against how I was raised to be big and do things, but do them in such a way that doesn’t create a ripple, which is the most impossible formula. How it usually gets executed is Asians just end up getting jobs that pay very well and their power is economic instead of political or militaristic, as in the form of physical violence.
For me, that countering takes the form of dressing up like Ms. Chinatown, crashing a parade, showing up on a red carpet and taking up space in order to point out how silly it is that the Asian American Film Festival in LA only allowed these willowy and beautiful Asian actors to walk the carpet for us to gawk at. I’m around so many writers, activists, poets, and filmmakers who are so much more interesting, and their work is not given that sort of equal praise. If we did, I feel like we’d have the start of what Black culture has had in terms of jazz, really fostering our own thing that would have some bigger course as opposed to just adapting to what exists around us.
That point about adaptation is really interesting. What we call the “real American” arts are often the offshoots of Black American culture like with minstrel shows, rock ‘n’ roll, or jazz, but what popularizes these forms are non-Black performers appropriating those cultural practices and bringing them to mainstream audiences, like Al Jolson, Elvis or Eminem, who all use blackness to cover for something else. Can you speak about that with regards to your show, such as rapping or appropriating well-known titles like Wall Street Journal?
It’s a struggle. I mean I wish I could just name a show whatever I want to name it, and not have to cater towards certain audience comfort levels. Maybe that will happen, as my work becomes better known. As for performing blackness, being in a hip-hop studio in Africa was the last thing I would have expected.
With Black Africans performing Black Americanness!
Yeah! And I wish had more time to talk about it in the show. I did interview different rappers and acts. For example, Akon was a huge influence to them. And yes, it was just really weird but so subversive in how you would never imagine seeing an Asian woman in that context. There are things that I know I can get away with. My cultural stereotype gives me license to do certain things, but I am very aware that if I were a white man or woman, the same experience would not be as interesting to an audience, and in fact, could really be upsetting. But audiences are not used to hearing from people like me at all. Traveling to Africa alone, wandering into a studio, and then making five songs is the last thing one might expect from an Asian American woman.
How do you feel about the Asian American political activist movement and where do you see your role?
I think I’m the joker or the jester, maybe.
The jester’s usually the smartest though.
Yeah, I hope so. Like I knew in college I didn’t have the energy to be on the front lines screaming and chanting. That is such important and emotional work. Personally, I cannot do it. I remember having an ulcer my freshman year of college. I’m not even joking. I didn’t have any sort of consciousness until then, and it was overwhelming, making me so angry that I literally had holes in my stomach. I realized there’s no point in “the man” getting you twice. They get you once when they oppress you and twice when they get you upset.
I’m trying to find ways into politics that allow folks to laugh, breathe, live, and not just feel forever trapped by the framework of it all, which is where many Asian Americans tune out. They think, “Well, I have privilege,” and aside being asked where they are from originally, they can live in gated communities and not ever have to deal with shit. So for me if I have to name a show “Wong Street Journal” to get folks to come in, great! Let’s just get them in the door and then go from there.
After going to Africa, and with all that’s going on with police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter, I’m really interested in trying to find ways that I can address the relationship of Asian Americans and Black people in this country, and on rest of the planet, where things aren’t all solidarity all of the time. But how do we be okay with sitting with that so that we can move forward and support that movement?
That’s a lot of stuff to grapple with by understanding my privilege and how to best use it. I want to open up small spaces for those who might otherwise recoil from what they perceive as militant politics, so that they find themselves thinking, “Actually, that makes a lot of sense!” Some people will say, “Oh you’re too soft. You’re a white apologist.” Whatever. Maybe that’s what I am, but I think I’m doing a lot for audiences that don’t care otherwise. I hope.
What kind of pressure do you feel as one of the few Asian American public figures?
You have to save our race. You have to save the race with everything. It was awful because the hashtag warrior personas taking me down on social media were once my friends. It was just a small group of three people who unfortunately are not my friends anymore, but that traumatic teardown and my hyper freak out about how to do the show activated my worst fears: that people of color were against me, that they would call me an Uncle Tom, or call me no better than a white anthropologist. I don’t want to be those things, obviously, but I think the best way to take that on was to take in that fear, personify it, and incorporate it in the show.
I think a lot of America’s puritan upbringing is still with us. That sort of witch-hunt culture is still online, where people are either wrong or right but never in between, with attention only going to those taking crazy public stands. Theater is one of the last frontiers in terms of just getting everyone to chill out for 85 minutes and sit face to face with a human being. I don’t know that I could say the same things in an online essay and have them come across the same way as they do in the show.
Life goes up and down. You almost have to pick crazy shit that’s not comfortable to work with, and this show is it. No one’s going to fix Africa overnight, certainly not me, but I spend a lot of time thinking about it now. Not in the sense that I have all the answers, but sort of thinking about differently than I did before, understanding what power we have as Asian Americans, and where we fit into this mess.
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Jason Coe is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. His dissertation, to be completed in 2016, focuses on migration in Sinophone and Asian American cinemas.
This interview was made possible through the generous funding of the Louis Cha Fund for Chinese Studies and East/West Studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.