by Kristina Wong
The Wong Street Journal is a new solo theater work written and performed by acerbic humorist Kristina Wong. Part psychedelic TED lecture, part amateur hip-hop extravaganza, and part nonsense, The Wong Street Journal breaks down the complexities of global poverty and economic theory using uneasy-to-read charts, never-before-proven economic survival strategies, and riveting slideshows of how Wong, a not-so-white savior, became a hip-hop star in Northern Uganda. Wong combines self-skewering personal narrative with heady economics in a “nearly-finished work-in-progress” developed during an artist’s residency at the Flynn. See it in FlynnSpace on Wednesday & Thursday, February 25 & 26 at 7:30 pm.
When I proposed the making of The Wong Street Journal several years ago, I had no idea specifically what I was going to find. I just knew I was tired of talking about myself and my own mania in my work. My identity, Asian American women’s mental health, cats, living without a car in LA, and the topics of my past shows had been toured so much they had long since felt myopic.
I’m a third generation Chinese American, and it might seem that the next logical exploration in my work would be to go to the “motherland” of China where I’d churn out a solo show about stepping foot onto China—an outsider with the same skin, looking for the villages that my grandparents fled, and peppered with enough orientalist detail to keep an audience baited. But frankly, other artists and memoirists have done it. I always feel like I find out what I really am in any setting that isn’t quite home. I decided to bypass the China trip altogether and instead, do research in the Mother of Motherlands—Africa.
I often work with communities of color in the US, and yet if you asked me in 2011 what I knew about Africa, I’d parrot back the media images of African people that have painted that continent with one brush—a monolith of disease, chaos, and war. What kind of artist am I if I buy into the cultural stereotypes that my work supposedly confronts?
I decided to go to Africa specifically because I knew so little about it. I’ve learned quite a lot since, but in no way am I any sort of expert. I looked at the opportunity as a chance to learn about global economics and delve into the ever-expansive politics of global poverty; subjects I never got the chance to study in school, but was curious about. The biggest challenge would be how to talk about poverty and traveling in Africa in a way that was sensitive, humanizing, but also fun to watch.
As part of my research, I worked with Women’s Global Empowerment Fund and Volunteer Action Network (VAC-NET) in Gulu, Uganda. These organizations provide microloan and education programs for women in Northern Uganda. In my work with WGEF, I assisted in producing their annual theater festival where WGEF microloan clients perform original works.
Before I left for Uganda I had many questions, among them:
My past work has always illuminated my own identity as a marginalized person in America.
What would happen if I went someplace where I was suddenly in a place of privilege?
Do microloans work?
How do they work if everyone in the area
Do people who receive microloans do better at the expense of people who have not received loans?
How do we end global poverty?
How do I take the issue of global poverty and filter through my trademark humor without diminishing the depth of the issue?
How do I find humor in this show that doesn’t come at the expense of mocking African people or poor people?
Instead of clear-cut answers to any of these questions, I returned from Uganda with many realizations. First, America has a f*cked up way of looking at Africa. Period. For starters, we keep referring to any of the 54 countries as “Africa” as if it’s a monolithic whole of orphans, chaos, starving children, warlords, and HIV. Like any place on earth, there’s a lot more going on than what we see on TV.
America has a f*cked up idea of charity. We associate alleviating poverty with giving food and clothes to “needy” people, rather than investing in education, small business, and the power of poor people to self-direct their own lives. I believe that America sustains the same poverty it attempts to alleviate because so much of the money going to “aid” is only towards short-term solutions. There are many Ugandan people who are working hard to improve their lives. There are organizations founded by Ugandan people to improve the lives of their communities. We never get to see Uganda being their own saviors; instead, we only see their suffering and see ourselves as the saviors who can help them. The reality was that when I got there, I wasn’t of much use to the office. I couldn’t speak the dialect of their clients. And there wasn’t much I’d change in a few weeks or even a few months while there. It was so uncomfortable to have to confront my own privilege there.
Unexpectedly, while in Gulu, I met some local rappers and collaborated on a five-song rap album called Mzungu Price. This album is a living diary of my encounters with local grassroots feminism, my personal negotiations with privilege, and the surprising discovery that I, a performer and writer, was considered a ‘rich white woman’ in Uganda. These songs still play on local radio and in nightclubs in Gulu. This music and the story of becoming “Uganda’s Vanilla Ice” are incorporated into The Wong Street Journal.
I was fortunate to have the summer to workshop the play at the Montalvo Arts Center. This is where I decided that what this show needed was a set sewn out of felt. I think that having everything from charts, to hashtags, to televisions sewn out of felt has made the themes of the work that much more playful. When I think of intimidating images of economics and stockbrokers, I imagine fast ticker tapes, male stockbrokers screaming, and men making millions off of things that exist in theory.
In my research I went to Toronto for a residency at York University and interviewed a former trader. He explained all the wild hand signals, what exactly they were buying and selling so frantically, and the theatrics of the stock floor were fascinating. Despite having had the stock market explained to me multiple times, I still don’t quite get what those stock traders are buying and trading. Perhaps because it is so difficult for me to grasp, that the stock market and people bidding on “futures” really does confirm my worst fears . . . that speculation and the “imaginary” is a lot of what drives this strange machine that is our economy. This made the artistic choice of sewing a “play set” feel so appropriate.
If this concept sounds like an unnecessarily gaudy and inappropriate oversimplification of an unsolvable and difficult topic—trust me, it is! The Wong Street Journal continues in the tradition of my work—taking an offbeat approach to exploring intense social issues to illuminate the strangeness of our times. And always, reporting from my life as the starting point of experimentation. The Wong Street Journal is the first time I step out from my mental interior and fly face-first into the most complex of global issues.