Los Angeles-based performer Kristina Wong is challenging and redefining both Asian American art and performance art. Praised by the likes of The Associated Press , San Francisco Bay Guardian , NY Arts Magazine , and Bitch , her show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tackles the problem of the disturbingly high suicide rates and depression among Asian American women. “Cuckoo’s Nest” also bravely digs into the difficulty of representing such a broad, complicated topic on stage. The result is a multi-layered examination of a complex societal problem, meta-theatrical exploration of the loaded task of addressing the issue through art.
Wong describes herself as “an equal opportunity satirist poking fun at everyone, even herself.” Blending trademark biting wit with moments of disarming vulnerability, she holds a mirror to both self and audience. In doing so, she exposes the charred underbelly of issues such as race, identity, and mental health with refreshing candor and yes, humor.
I sat down with Wong while she was in Minneapolis to perform Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest through Pangea World Theater to talk about how the show evolved and how that process affected her as an artist.
What prompted you to write Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?
The last show I was touring was called Free ?, a kind of a mish-mash yard sale of different identity-type things, and I was trying to think about what the next show would be. I was [a visiting artist] at Wellesley College, which is an all-women’s college, and it’s super-utopic. It’s all women, gorgeous campus. No one locks up their bicycles. I stayed in the feminist co-op, a place with all these women who’d traveled around the world, and they were all so well read, and I thought, “Wow, this place is so perfect. How could anything wrong possibly happen in this place?”
I was walking around the lake with a student host, and we started to talk about the topic of depression and students who’d attempted suicide. I just remember thinking, “That’s the hitch of the new show." I looked at the statistic and read some articles that said Asian women had the highest rates of depression and suicide. And, I don’t remember when [historian and journalist] Iris Chang tried to kill herself, but I think all these kinds of things were happening at once. There was this whole dynamic of how something so awful could be happening to people who were seemingly perfect. I was thinking, “How could people be so miserable in such a perfect environment?”
So, it came from that questioning…
Yeah. It was originally going to be this big conspiracy-theory show about how the world was messed up and this mental illness comes from the larger world’s illness. I thought, “No one’s ever done this show. I’m gonna win awards, and I’m gonna tour a lot. I’m gonna get those little crystal awards that the community gives!” My ego just jumped right in, and I thought, “For once I’ll be able to do a show that’s not self-indulgent and that’s based on research. I’ll get to read books and not just probe my diary." It was really naive.
As I started to talk with students and classes, the same kind of questions would come up again and again: “Why is this happening? Is this something that’s happened to you?” It became very messy very fast. I had no answers for people about why it was happening. I also didn’t feel comfortable being this native informant, like, “On behalf of, as this spokesperson for all these dying women, let me tell you why they did it.” People’s lives are so dynamic. There are so many reasons people have for making the choices they make.
I describe it like being in high school again, where everyone wanted something from me. I was supposed to do this, and I was supposed to do that, and no one was gonna help me walk through it. They were just gonna meet me at graduation and take pictures of me. I started to knit a lot, which ended up being in the show, the way writers chain smoke cigarettes. Because, even if this shit was going nowhere, at least I could see a scarf progress over two hours.
You felt that burden of representation.
Yeah, like I say in the show, “I’m trying to tell 6.2 million stories with one show.”
I don’t feel comfortable with the convention of “interview a bunch of people, turn them into monologues, and give eight monologues”, where I wear a baseball cap, where I wear a shawl as an old lady. I don’t like the idea of turning people into characters.
So, I was trying to think, “What would be the point of doing the show?” Is it just to humanize Asian women? That’s not what I’m interested in as my outright goal. Some artists do that, but it’s not something I’m interested in. What do I want the audience to leave with? Pity? “Oh, I feel so sorry for all these women. Now I know.” What’s the point of that?
I think as an artist of color, the instinct is to re-enact the oppression. What does that do? If you were to weigh it on the scale of victory, you versus the oppressor, not only did they oppress you, but they got you to re-enact it. You’ve lost twice. I can’t think of anything more awful than having to re-enact eight depressed women’s stories.
How did you work through and eventually work your way out of that confusion?
I just started to create pieces out of order and put them together. I was very lucky to have Katie Pearl, who was the director, to put things together. She helped me sew all these disparate parts together. I don’t sit at a computer and just write and write, and then rehearse emotion into the script with a director. I have notes, and I have a lot of conversation, and I need someone who’s not an actor’s director. We get down and dirty. And, after we kind of sewed it all up, we sat down to figure out where the emotion of this piece was. I felt like, “I almost don’t even care about these women killing themselves anymore. I’m more frustrated with the process of trying to make this impossible show.” And, I think that’s what the show’s really about. It’s about me as a character named Kristina Wong trying to fix this awful problem in this 80-minute show.
Does it feel more authentic to you now?
At first it didn’t. It feels fine now, but when I first premiered it, it didn’t. In the very first show, I think it wasn’t clear the separation between me Kristina and Kristina the character onstage. I also didn’t know how to do a Q&A [post-show discussion]. I just assumed people would ask questions about the craft of the show. I would still be there in my last costume, which was a hospital gown, with lipstick smeared all over my face, and people would be like, “So, did that really happen?” Now I think it’s more clear. Unfortunately, all those people who saw those first shows think I’m crazy. (laughs)
What are you working on now?
My new show is about my cat. It’s also about loneliness and human alienation. But, I never want to pick up a topic like [depression and suicide] again. I feel so proud of “Cuckoo’s Nest”, but I feel like it’s going to be a long time before I take on a topic like that.
I’m slowly coming into just owning my own voice, and I think “Cuckoo’s Nest” was the biggest kick in my pants, because I wouldn’t have been happy if it was a show that was custom-ordered by other people. With this new cat show, I said, “I’m just gonna do a show about being a cat lady and my obsession with the subculture of male pickup artists.” It has nothing to do with Asian American studies. I’m not gonna think about the market. I’m just gonna make a show, for once.
For more information on Kristina Wong, including press and booking, visit her fabulous website at www.kristinawong.com.