‘From Number to Name’: Stories from the Inside

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Director Kristina Wong shares API incarcerees’ experiences.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Kristina Wong is coming to East West Players, but not in the way that you might think.

The artist and activist will not be doing one of her one-woman shows, such as “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Wong Street Journal.” Instead, she’ll be directing “From Number to Name,” a co-production of EWP and API Rise about Asian Pacific Islanders who have been incarcerated through the criminal justice system.

Kristina Wong

Part of EWP’s virtual 55th anniversary season, “From Number to Name” will be presented two days only, Saturday and Sunday, April 10-11. Instead of actors, the show features actual incarcerees and their families discussing their experiences.

Sharing their stories are Sergio Mauritz Ang, Van Huynh, Maria Kanaka Luna, MJ Kang, Kirn Kim, Steve Liang, Ely Sonny Orquiza, Meena Ramamurthy, Irv Relova, and Billy Taing. Wong is developing the show with Godfrey Santos Plata, dramaturg; Albert Park, stream producer; and Ella Larsen, production assistant.

Calling them “a cool and open group,” Wong said the process involves “not rehearsing something that’s written, just generating material … kind of putting it all together.” She has been working with the group, mostly via Zoom, to “find ways to connect about personal stories” and make them engaging for an audience that hasn’t heard about these kinds of experiences.

Wong, whose parents live in San Francisco, began working six or seven years ago with a group called Roots at nearby San Quentin, which, she was told, is regarded as “the Harvard of prisons.” Through an AA certificate program, guest speakers from the outside worked with mostly Asian American inmates.

“I knew on a political level why it was important to understand … But I had never been inside a prison, and in the back of my mind I was so scared of going inside,” she said as she recalled all the procedures — submitting ID in advance, dress code, no cell phones allowed. “What’s going to happen? I didn’t know what to think.”

She did a modified version of “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” without a projector or props, which weren’t permitted. “What that show is about is the culture of shame [in the Asian American community], the high rates of depression and suicide … The shame of having a family member in prison, how to reintegrate. The shame brought to family, being a pariah in the community.”

The inmates were “the most attentive audience I’d ever had,” Wong said, and she was told that the performance, workshop and games were “the most fun we’ve had in weeks.” Some inmates, immigrants who had been locked up since they were teenagers, apologized for their English.

Normally, Wong would have said, “Thanks for coming,” but “these folks weren’t leaving any time soon … If they had a choice they wouldn’t be there.” Instead, she told them, “Good luck to you.”

Recalling one inmate, serving a 30-year sentence, who had “Insane” tattooed on his neck, Wong said, “In my mind I thought I would see the same people who committed the crimes, the same level of energy and anger,” but like some of her artist friends, she felt “welcomed and appreciated” and found the experience “life-changing.”

She wondered “what could have been done to keep them out of trouble” and was inspired to do research on Asian Americans in prison. She got to thinking, “How can we create a world where folks don’t go to prison? Not that folks shouldn’t serve their time, but obviously we’ve got 35 prisons in California at a cost of billions of dollars, and it doesn’t stop people from committing crimes.”

While attending a political fundraiser in L.A., Wong met Paul Jung, executive director of API Rise, a nonprofit that seeks to empower the Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander American communities and specifically those individuals who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

Through a series of informal events, such as a “welcome home” party for someone who had been locked up for about 20 years, Wong got to know many formerly incarcerated people and issues facing Asian American prisoners. For instance, those who were not U.S. citizens had to go to ICE detention for possible deportation as soon as they were released from prison.

Some families were so embarrassed that they would explain a loved one’s absence by saying he was “away studying.” Some incarcerees felt so guilty that they did not go to see their families after being released.

One inmate said that he was indoors for so long that “he had an allergy to the sun. When he finally had exposure, his body freaked out.” Another inmate remembered the simple pleasure of being able to go outside at night for yard time.

“One of them who’s been out a while was an honor roll student who got locked up at 16,” Wong noted. “He thought he was going to serve the rest of his life in prison.” She found his story interesting because it dealt with the “model minority” stereotype.

This inmate told her he felt like Rip Van Winkle upon his release because he was incarcerated until he was 38.

Wong also met a man who “used to make kim chee in prison using trash bags, vinegar from jalapeño packets, red pepper flakes, not cabbage but lettuce.” He had to trade precious possessions, such as a photocopy of TV Guide, to get the ingredients.

With all the stories she heard, “I could easily have done a 10-hour show.”

During the first rehearsal, “my jaw just fell on the floor” when she heard the cast members’ “incredible experiences and stories … not actually performing too much but kind of speaking honestly is so rich … They may not be trained actors, but they’re the real deal … the way they talk about their own lives.”

Ultimately, Wong wants to confront taboos, “bring up things that we’re ashamed of,” and have the audience see these people “as more than ex-cons.”

Kristina Wong did a rant about anti-Asian violence on NBC’s “A Little Late with Lilly Singh.”

Getting Political

Wong has been making a splash with “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” which premiered in February 2020. The setting is “a live, crazy rally … people screaming and cheering. I’m fascinated with the theatrics of political rallies and debates,” she said, observing that it’s like reality TV because people act more dramatically than they would in real life.

She admits that doing political humor was a challenge during the Trump era because it was hard to “out-shock” audiences when the daily headlines were so outrageous.

“I was set to tour and then March happened,” said Wong, who has instead been doing the show online.

Wong also ran for and was elected to actual public office — the Subdistrict 5 seat on the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council — which enables her to combine real-world experience with political satire.

Her current pandemic project is the Auntie Sewing Squad, a national network of volunteers sewing masks for vulnerable communities. The experience of erecting a remote factory in ten days at the start of the pandemic is the subject of her latest performance, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” which she is developing with New York Theater Workshop.

The squad’s job is to “sew some masks for frontline workers and communities that have no access to masks, even cheap ones — farm workers, migrant workers, the incarcerated,” she explained.

On March 23, Wong was recruited to do a guest rant about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes on NBC’s “A Little Late with Lilly Singh,” which airs after “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

“They phoned me out of nowhere … asked me to do a rant,” she said. “I was very unclear what was happenng. Are you writing it? Am I writing it? I just wrote a bunch of jokes and the writers, their job was to look at it and shape it … I had to take two COVID tests.”

Regarding the spa shootings in Georgia, Wong ranted, “It doesn’t help that Atlanta police aren’t ready to call this a hate crime. Instead, they link this massacre to the gunman’s ‘sexual addiction.’ I’ve had my share of hornball years, but never in my thirstiest of thirsts did I show up with guns to someone’s workplace to shoot and kill a bunch of people of the same race.

“Plus the fact that this shooter saw Asian women as sexual objects that were tempting him LITERALLY IS RACISM. This is what white supremacy looks like. It’s ugly. It’s cowardly. It needs to shave.”

She also talked about her own experiences with fetishization of Asian women. “How we’d match on Tinder, and you’d open with your line, KONNICHI WA! Then you’d proceed to ghost me because I wasn’t the subservient Asian woman that you’ve seen in pornography or every Hollywood movie before 2010, 2017 or 2021 …

“These attacks didn’t come out of nowhere. They were the logical progression of a culture that we have tolerated for as long as Asians have been in this country. Honestly, I’m tired. Tired of having to prove my Americanness, my worth, my humanity. I’m tired of a global pandemic not being the thing that I’m most afraid of.”

Wong urged everyone to “take anti-racist action” and emphasized that hoping “Minari” wins the Oscar is not enough.

The entire rant can be seen on YouTube.

“I get a lot of phone calls to do interviews responding to this,” she said. “I want to do my best job, to give the best information I have in the time I have … As a comedian, where’s the joke? Is that okay?”

Normally, getting calls from Canadian TV, KPFK and The L.A. Times would be cause for celebration, but the reason they are calling is “so sad.”

In terms of stopping AAPI hate, Wong asks, “How do we look out for each other? … Calling the police is an option, but it shouldn’t be the only line of defense. There are people in the cast [of the EWP show]who have experienced what it means to live in a policed community.”

Noting that “From Number to Name” will include a Q&A “to have a conversation connecting all these things that are happening now,” Wong said she wants to see “a bigger spectrum of stories about us” than is seen in “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Bling Empire.” “I’m very honored to present and create that space. I hope this is not my only chance to bring this forward.”

Single tickets for “From Number to Name” are available on a pay-what-you-can basis. More information on memberships and ticketing at www.eastwestplayers.org, or by contacting the EWP Box Office at [email protected]

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