When Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, Kristina Wong, a Los Angeles performance artist, comedian and progressive activist, had an epiphany similar to that experienced by other artists and comedians shocked by his victory.
“It felt like there was no need for me to make satire or make fictitious plays satirizing the current political moment. I felt I’d lost my job to the politicians. Anything I could imagine I could construct could never beat real life,” Wong says.
But, by February 2020, when Wong, who grew up in San Francisco and graduated from UCLA, premiered her one-person show Kristina Wong for Public Office, her initial response had shifted. By that point, she had already successfully run for a seat and served two months on the Koreatown Sub-district 5 Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles, which put her in the thick of actual policy and legislation.
The impetus behind the show, which runs from Jan. 12 to 14 at Theater on Currier at Dartmouth and is co-presented with the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences was, Wong says, to “explore what it means to run for office, and the money involved in running for office.”
Wong likens the electoral process to “the worst episode of The Bachelor ever, when you’re just trying to get the public to hand you the final rose. You can’t get everyone to like you in politics. It’s impossible. It almost works in your favor to be polarizing to certain factions. These are the scary truths about our times.”
The show is “smart and incisive,” says Samantha Lazar, curator of academic programming at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Among the crucial questions Wong considers, Lazar said, are how and whether the arts, which are so vital to society, can actually effect change.
“Where are the delineating lines between art, politics and performance?” Lazar says. And are there even any clear lines anymore?
They have blurred, Wong says. “Artists and politicians have switched jobs. We used to laugh at comedians and listen to politicians; now we laugh at politicians and listen to comedians.”
That paradox, as well as the larger civic questions raised by Wong, is precisely why the Rockefeller Center is a co-sponsor of the show, says Herschel Nachlis, the associate director and senior policy fellow at the center.
When students interested in studying public policy come to Nachlis for advice on what classes to take, they expect to be given a list of only government and public policy courses. But Nachlis also advises students to take acting and dance classes that enable them to see the world through other perspectives.
“The social sciences need the humanities, and the humanities need the social sciences,” Nachlis says.
In preparation for Kristina Wong for Public Office, which she’s bringing to Dartmouth shortly before the Jan. 23 New Hampshire presidential primary, Wong watched videos of numerous political debates and rallies. The parallels between public and political theater were obvious.
“It’s the theatrics of building energy with an audience, of making people believe you can change all their realities; this reality that I’m naming for you on stage.”
Complicating that age-old dynamic is the new reality in which politicians and people running for office must now play to multi-media audiences—on television, on YouTube and on such digital platforms as X, Instagram, TikTok and Facebook. Wong was struck by the deliberation with which politicians create viral moments, she says. She looks at their “conscious costuming choices and visual cues. I totally read it as if I’m analyzing a play.”
Wong served for four years on the neighborhood council before deciding in April 2023 not to run again, writing on her Facebook page that, “For now I need a bit of a break as I contend with the change and community that is possible to make as an artist.” She is not opposed to running again at a later date, she says, and would not discourage anyone from seeking public office, despite the challenges of actually legislating.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much administration there’ll be,” she says. It can be hard to cut through the bureaucracy and dysfunction and the in-your-face nature of politics and policy.
“You’re yelling at your neighbor. Who wants to spend their one day off being yelled at by their neighbor? It’s hard, right?” Wong says. Financial resources were slim. Nonetheless, during her tenure, there were small but meaningful victories, such as setting up public toilets for the unhoused population, and taking votes on issues of the day that were largely symbolic but still meaningful.
Everything changed, of course, in March 2020, when COVID-19 began to spread worldwide, and countries went into lock-down. Which meant that Kristina Wong for Public Office had only two public performances before going online, as did every other theatrical show.
In response to the pandemic, Wong marshaled what became known as the Auntie Sewing Squad, a nationwide crew of hundreds of women, including Wong and her mother, who volunteered to sew facemasks. (Wong also sews her own theatrical sets.) That effort became the basis for Wong’s performance piece, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, which earned her a number of theatrical awards for best solo show of 2021.
The next year, she was the first Asian-American woman to be named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama; and in 2023, she received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Doris Duke Artist in the category of theater. She is now working on a performance piece titled Kristina Wong, Food Bank Influencer, which will premiere in 2025.
Wong wants to make a point about the larger civic lesson of Kristina Wong for Public Office—as well as her subsequent performance pieces and her community activism.
“Sometimes I think we forget that we are all the government. It’s not just making demands. I learned during the pandemic we need to actively create communities and not wait for anybody to fix things for us, or else we’ll be waiting a really long time,” she says.
Kristina Wong for Public Office runs from Jan. 12-14 at Theater on Currier at Dartmouth. Evening performances are on Jan. 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m, followed by conversations with Wong. Matinees are on Jan. 13 and 14 at 2 p.m.
Wong will also speak about the role of the artist in political discourse on Thursday, Jan. 11, at the Rockefeller Center’s Hinman Forum. The event is free but registration is recommended.