The Body Politic: 'Kristina Wong for Public Office' Wins This Election

Kristina Wong in “Kristina Wong for Public Office” captured at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in October 2020.  (Image courtesy of Center Theatre Group.)

What’s your election day coping strategy? Will you obsessively watch as they count each electoral vote on national television? Or will you try to take your mind off the polls until the election’s been called one way or another? Either way, election season brings forth a spate of politically-inspired performance, and even in pandemic times there’s plenty to choose from.

Radio plays from the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Berkeley Repertory Theatre in conjunction with over 90 nationwide broadcasting partners. Homebrewed web series such as Ross Travis’ satirical Lady Rona Public Service Announcements, and the newly rejuvenated So Soul SF salons, co-presented by the Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience and Brava Theatre. Zoom productions and cross-continental collaborations too numerous to list. All ready to do their political duty and offer solace to communities under pressure.

But one piece in particular stands out to me as being perfect both for election night stress-viewing, and post-election decompression, and that is Kristina Wong for Public Office. Not only is San Francisco-born performance artist Kristina Wong an insightful satirist—with two decades of politically-aware, socially-engaged work under her belt—but she’s an elected official on her neighborhood council in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. So her faux campaign performance is utterly grounded in the political processes it seeks to subvert.

Kristina Wong in 'Kristina Wong for Public Office' captured at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in October 2020. (Image courtesy of Center Theatre Group.)

While plenty of artists create work about politics, only a handful of them ever actually run for public office (“there’s always room for Jello”), and even fewer wind up getting elected. That Wong’s crowd-working campaign strategies garnered her just 72 votes still gives her extra insight into the machinations of the political process—even for a low-stakes, entirely voluntary seat on the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council. Even before she was elected she encountered some dubious tactics from supporters of one of her opponents, but by virtue of there being two seats available and a three-candidate pool, she won her spot and the real work began.

Serving on a neighborhood council is about as politically unglamorous as it gets, and yet, as a microcosm of the national political process, it’s highly instructive—both for Wong as an individual, and for the audience of her digital show (directed by Diana Wyenn, and filmed onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre for an in-house audience of empty chairs and a global audience of anyone with internet access and $10). Unlike most other political shows, Kristina Wong for Public Office dares to set up not an us/them dichotomy or a call to some amorphous action heavy on rhetoric but light on specifics, but a practical, DIY guide to running a campaign of one’s own, and what to expect once you get into office.

Kristina Wong in 'Kristina Wong for Public Office,' captured at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in October 2020. (Image courtesy of Center Theatre Group.)

A performer not afraid to fill up her available space, Wong stalks the perimeter of the Kirk Douglas Theatre stage like a prizefighter, an Elvis-style studded cape with her name stitched in sequins on the back fluttering in her wake. Her talents as a fabric artist are on proud display: a banner emblazoned with a rainbow-striped eagle and a marijuana leaf, hand-sewn stars and stripes draped over the podium.

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With simple but effective shifts in action and an evocative soundtrack designed by Mark McClain Wilson, Wong takes us through the tense personal moments leading to her political epiphany, and the call to her own action as an elected official. At times she appears quite flummoxed by the system she’s joined to improve—an experience I imagine most change-makers encounter along the way. But her persistence is tangibly rewarded by the end of the play, and also in the “real” world where she continues to serve on her council seat. It's a notable example of the ways the arts can be leveraged in the service of the body politic.

“We all have the power to make symbols, until they become real life,” she assures her virtual audience, looking straight into the camera to make sure we feel that potential power coursing through our veins. “Say it with me,” she urges. “Culture is power!...We are the ones we have been waiting for!”

For those who know that, as with the arts, the slow, iterative work of politics doesn’t stop even after the votes have been counted—this show’s for you.

'Kristina Wong for Public Office' runs online through Nov. 29, presented by Center Theatre Group. Info and tickets here.