Diverseworks brings ‘Cat Lady’ Kristina Wong to Houston
By Alex Wukman
There’s an image in Kristina Wong’s photo stream, mixed in with the vacation shots, of her onstage, wearing matching blue windbreaker and news dealer cap, projected on to the back wall of the theatre are words that could be said to define most people in this country: race and identity. As a solo performance artist Wong dealt very overtly with race in her previous one woman show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the show Wong opened a dialogue about the high incidence of anxiety, depression and mental illness among Asian American women. Her press kit explains that she was trying to use “art as a healer” by exploring the issue of mental health in marginalized communities and “move past oppression into [a] healthy [future].”
Through continual touring and performing Wong came to be widely known in theatre circles across the country, the Associated Press called her “raucous and irreverent” and LA City Beat described Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as one “of the funniest shows in town and engenders a level of audience participation that’s enthusiastic without becoming embarrassing.” In a tale as old as time Wong began to feel isolated and alone by life on the road.
At her new production’s fundraising site on the United States Artists.org network Wong discusses some of the burden she felt performing a show about suicide and mental illness for four consecutive years. “The process of making the show was the most heartbreaking and depressing endeavor I had ever taken up. The last four years of touring alone on the road have been some of the most isolating years of my life,” she writes.
She goes on to explain that she was doing her show “so much, I was becoming the character from my show- conversations from real life flowed into my real life monologues.” In Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest she plays a character named Kristina who is hospitalized for mental illness, something that never happened to the real Kristina Wong. However, the subtlety of the distinction between artist/actor and character were often lost on audiences.
“I’d have people come up to me after the show and say that it was brave of me to talk about being hospitalized,” Wong said in an interview. She explains how over the course of touring so much of her identity became fiction that her own memory began to change because she “spent more time thinking about the script” than the events of her own life. She goes on to describe how taking a show about mental illness on tour proved uniquely difficult. “It felt like I was a town crier, I’d show up at a college campus after someone had committed suicide,” said Wong.
The isolation of the road, and the feeling of being consumed by a character, allowed her to connect with a surprising subject. “In my isolation at home and on the road, I read Neil Strauss’ “The Game” and started watching “The Pick-Up Artist” reality competition show,” writes Wong. Strauss, a journalist for Rolling Stone, wrote about the subculture of male pick-up artists. Wong goes on to write that she became fascinated with the parallels between the life of a theatre performer and those of a pick-up artist.
“Their (morally questionable) techniques and (manipulative) seduction tools seem plucked straight from improv theater training. Like me, they used their “scripts” on audiences to escape the reality of their loneliness,” writes Wong. According to Wong, during and after the success of Cuckoo’s Nest loneliness came to define much of her life.
“I finally got to feel like an important artist and create a space where people got to talk about depression and suicide , but I felt so empty inside,” said Wong. Wong also began to feel guilt about her success, as she went on to say, at times it seemed that the only reason she was able to get work was “because people are killing themselves.” As Wong began researching the world of pick-up artists and interviewing individual pick-up artists she realized that both her and her subjects shared the same motivations. “We were both doing theatre from a need to connect out of our [own] loneliness,” said Wong.
One of the things that Wong said surprised her was how much time pick-up artists spent learning to talk to someone. “The art of interpersonal communication is dying and these guys are paying thousands of dollars to learn to revive it for their purposes,” said Wong. Seeing parallels in the unchanging scripts of the pick-up artists and the repetitive nature of many conversations Wong asked “is human communication just a script we play over and over again?”
It would be easy to say that Wong’s other choice of subject for her performance piece, one of the enduring clichés of American life, cat ladies, offers a contrast to the forced extroversion of the pick-up artists, the only problem is that they are eerily similar. “They both hoard pussy as a surrogate for actual human connection,” said Wong. One of the press releases for the show describes the juxtaposition of pick-up artists and cat ladies as “the parallel world of the pathetically lonely” and describes Wong “bending [them]…into an intersection of characters living at the margins of gender and society.”
Cat Lady debuted at Diverse Works on March 24 at 7:30 p.m. and continues until March 26. Call 713-223-8346 for ticket information.