Tuesday, February 18

Alumna draws attention to consequences of Western activism through show

Alumna Kristina Wong's one-woman show "The Wong Street Journal" first debuted in 2015 and will return to Los Angeles Oct. 26 through Nov. 12. The show tackles themes of privilege and activism with humor and a TED Talk-style realism.(Dayoung Lee/Daily Bruin)

Kristina Wong’s latest show features a scene where she throws brightly colored red hashtags at her audience members while encouraging them to throw them back.

The act is meant to simulate hashtag activism, one of the many topics Wong, a UCLA alumna, critiques in her one-woman show “The Wong Street Journal.”

“The Wong Street Journal” originally debuted in 2015, but Wong is bringing the performance back to Los Angeles from Oct. 26 through Nov. 12. The show translates her time as an Asian-American woman in Uganda into a one-woman show that tackles themes of privilege and activism. Wong re-enacts moments from her trip, analyzing interactions and breaking down abstract concepts with both humor and a TED Talk-style realism.

Wong visited Uganda in 2013 while working with an organization that provided small loans to women. She planned to use the trip as inspiration for a new show, which she envisioned would focus on poverty and foreign aid. However, as she analyzed her experiences, Wong said she ultimately realized that her own identity as a third-generation Chinese-American woman had changed the show’s intended narrative.

In one segment of her show, Wong discusses how she met some Ugandan rap artists just a few days after she arrived and collaborated with them on an album called “Mzungu Price.”

One of the rappers asked her to help sponsor a music studio, promising to name it Wong Studios in her honor. Wong agreed to help, which resulted in the rapper getting fired from his job and fights between the other artists. She said she realized the situation mirrored the ways in which colonialism operated – she had good intentions, but failed to factor in the potential consequences of her actions before acting, she said.

“It was just crazy, because I felt like this is a mini version of what happens when the West shows up in any developing country,” Wong said. “That little thing that we think is being helpful, is not.”

Wong said she did not originally intend for her show to focus on race, but the trip shifted her role in the show’s story. Although she identified as a marginalized person in the United States, in Uganda, she was often considered the most powerful person in the room simply because she was American, a dynamic she said cast her in the role of the colonial oppressor.

When Wong returned from her trip, she wrote more than 200 pages of material and began the difficult task of sifting through it to create a theatrical narrative. Wong said she found the process daunting and sought advice from Emily Mendelsohn, whom she knew from a previous theater panel she had worked on. Mendelsohn directed “The Wong Street Journal” and helped shape the performance by developing thematic patterns and pointing out gaps in the narrative, Mendelsohn said.

“I think my role in building the piece is to be the trial audience for the work, especially because Kristina (Wong) is mining something that she actually experienced,” Mendelsohn said. “If someone has not been through this experience, what are they receiving, what’s being put on stage?”

Wong said she was conscious of her limited perspective in telling the story and the difficulty of crafting it without turning it into a savior narrative. Wong actively worked to avoid the savior trope by cutting out specific anecdotes that came off as demeaning. She also tried to subvert Western depictions of African countries as sad and destitute by infusing the joy she witnessed in Uganda into the story.

“I think there’s an idea that a story about Africa has to be sad in a very specific way and I reject that,” Wong said. “I don’t want to hurt any more people with my show, I don’t want to disrespect the people I met, I want to do right by them.”

The Los Angeles run of “The Wong Street Journal” also marks the second time Wong has performed the show this year, and she said she has struggled to shift the frame of the show to fit within the context of President Donald Trump’s administration. Elements meant to be more comedic, such as the show’s discussion of Twitter activism, are made more poignant by the president’s frequently combative use of social media, she said.

Fellow UCLA alumnus and longtime collaborator Asher Yap said he believes Wong’s position as a woman of color granted her a different perspective to raise awareness about the topics the show presented.

“(Her work) has gotten more deliberate with time and it’s gotten more timeless,” Yap said. “I’m always amazed at her ability to find a way to shed a humorous light on an issue that most people don’t think too much about, and sort of make you think about it again.”

Wong said she hopes the show’s combination of activism, humor and gravity is able to appropriately convey her own emotions and thoughts about her trip without leaving audiences with the wrong impression.

“Even my parents … they still look at this show as the ‘Kristina (Wong) was so brave and went to Africa’ show,” Wong said. “But I feel like everything I’m trying to do is make sure you know that that is not that show.”

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