Laugh until you cry, then actually cry at Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, live at Portland Center Stage through December 18.

Photo by Jingzi Zhao, courtesy Portland Center Stage

While reliving the pandemic doesn’t exactly sound like a fun date night at first blush, Kristina Wong manages to make the experience both moving and a hell of a good time.

This solo performance, written and performed by Wong, is about the Auntie Sewing Squad, a group of people, many of them Asian women, who sewed hundreds of thousands of masks during the pandemic for the most vulnerable communities. Wong makes even the pre-performance trigger warnings amusing, but note that — like the pandemic itself — the show is full of them. It is a celebration of the work of these generous humans, and also a searing critique of the country and leadership that failed to protect its citizens.

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Do you remember that pandemic feeling, when you were so immersed in the latest crisis, so overwhelmed by the current moment, that when the next catastrophe entered the news cycle, the shock of more awful felt almost paralyzing? This show imitates that experience with a terrible familiarity. We know what happened in 2020 and 2021, but we are still blindsided as Wong retells it over the course of 90 frenetic minutes.

But two things keep this show light enough to also be fun: the visuals and over-the-top, whip-smart comedy. The set design by Junghyun Georgia Lee is colorful and childlike, with oversized pincushions and giant spools for furniture, and a Hello Kitty sewing machine taking center stage. It feels playful and safe. Since the show takes place in the intimate Ellen Bye Studio, every seat in the house has an excellent view of the costume design by Linda Cho, my personal favorite feature being the bandolier of spools of thread. This is a war-zone, after all.

Should you bring your kids? The show is recommended for ages 13+, and I would suggest only bringing mature teens who are at least moderately familiar with the news cycle of the past few years. My spouse and I were glad to be alone, not fielding whispered questions about current events.

This social commentary — both fierce and darkly funny — was the theater experience I didn’t know I needed. I left feeling I could almost wrap my mind around what we’ve been through and inspired to meet the next news cycle with more compassion and power.

Go for the catharsis. Go for the laughs. Go because it’s only 90 minutes with no intermission, and that’s a cheap sitter fee.

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Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord
A co-production by Portland Center Stage and Boom Arts
Buy tickets here.
Get amazing deals here.
The show is audio described on November 20, sign interpreted on December 1, and open captioned on December 3.

Meg Asby
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