From Jan. 11-14, the Hopkins Center for the Arts and the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy hosted performance artist and retired local politician Kristina Wong for five performances of her show, “Kristina Wong for Public Office.” On Jan. 11, Wong also held a conversation discussing the relationship between politics and performance at the Rockefeller Center.
In 2020, Wong’s career as a politically-charged performance artist took a turn after a fateful night out with friends. As Wong explained in her show, she took an edible with her friends one night, and the next day she realized she had registered to run for a position on the Los Angeles Koreatown Neighborhood Council. Despite the less-than-serious beginning of her campaign, she committed to her candidacy and proceeded to win the position, holding it for two terms.
In the 65-minute show performed at the Theater on Currier, Wong narrated her experiences in office mixed with jokes and funny stories. She offered an inside view into the limitations of politics and also presented insights into the striking parallels between her life as a performer and public servant.
With sardonic displays of political pomp interspersed with canny reflection, Wong was unafraid to confront the audience or cause discomfort. At one moment she had theatergoers indicate their political stances to another person in the crowd, and she later summoned an unsuspecting man in the crowd named “Michael” to publicly endorse her on behalf of all white people.
“I think Kristina is super hard to put in a box [because] she has so many intersectional identities, both in and of her own person as well as professionally,” Samantha Lazar, the Hop’s Curator of Academic Programming, said.
In Aug. 2021, Wong participated in a summer artist residency at the New York Theatre Workshop, a program that has been held at Dartmouth for the past 31 years. There, she worked on a more recent show of hers, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” which became a 2022 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Drama. Wong was the first Asian American woman to be a finalist in this category.
Originally written in the lead-up to the 2020 election, “Kristina Wong for Public Office” was meant to tour that year, but the tour was ultimately canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, the show was filmed for viewing on Center Theater Group’s Digital Stage, and it was received with positive critical reception.
However, the material’s continued relevance allowed Wong to present “Kristina Wong for Public Office” — albeit with the necessary updates — according to Lazar. Lazar described how Wong was able to tailor the show to Hanover topics and politics while directly engaging with the audience in her gutsy performance style.“You feel [as if] you’re right there with her,” Lazar reflected. “There was one [Asian] student who was like, ‘Oh my god, she looked me right in the eye … and said Asians don’t vote, ahh!’”
Despite Wong’s frustration at feeling powerless to enact change even as a politician, Lazar found the show’s messages, as well as Wong’s personal trajectory, inspiring.
“I think it was empowering because [it made] people realize what they do and say matters, whether it be through mak[ing] art or simply hav[ing] discussions,” Lazar said.
Lin Lin ’26, who had previously studied Wong in ENGL 31, “Asian American Literature and Culture,” noted the relevance of the show’s themes and appreciated how Wong emphasized the blurry lines between politics and public performance.
“She’s definitely a very great performer, and very much what we need to hear now,” Lin said. “Politicians are now performance artists, and performance artists are now making very political messaging about what is going on in the world.”
Both Lazar and Kai Zhou ’24 were inspired to consider the unique capacities afforded to an artist as opposed to a politician.
“As an artist, she’s not running for anything, so she doesn’t need everyone to like her,” Lazar explained. “[She] doesn’t need to walk on eggshells in the same way that a politician might.”
“I think that performance art is a really strong medium … [even] probably one of the most strong,” Zhou said. “[Wong] talked about this: [How] she felt more power at some point being a performance artist than being an elected official.”
Zhou and Lazar also praised the show’s uplifting way of injecting humor, joy and even a tenuous sense of hope into an otherwise cynical reflection of the disillusioning political landscape.
“A lot of people just wrestle with pent up feelings of, ‘Oh, everything is miserable; all politics are broken,’ and it almost feels too serious to laugh at,” Lazar said. “But then onstage comes Kristina Wong, and you can’t help but laugh at her.”
In the conversation hosted by the Rockefeller Center on Jan. 11, Wong discussed how art can help shift the collective conscience and pave the way for new policy.
“[The] culture has to shift for everyone to get on board — for that last bit of policy to change,” Wong said.
This idea further resonated with Zhou’s takeaways from a group project from SOCY 76, “Race, Power and Politics,” a class he took last winter. The project, currently published online at the Dartmouth Libraries website, revolves around historical Asian American student activism at Dartmouth that actually often took the form of performance art.
Zhou, a Dartmouth Asian American Studies Collective member whose activism mostly doesn’t focus on institutionalized politics, said that the show motivated him to think more seriously about the importance of engaging in such politics.
“I would say [that] I’m a pretty politically engaged person … I’m a member of DAASC, [and] we’re very activism focused. But we focus mostly on Asian American diasporic issues, and that usually doesn’t take the form of institutionalized politics,” Zhou explained. “But one of the things that I was thinking about after the show was how involvement in institutionalized politics can work out … [especially] to actually make a change.”
Correction Appended (Jan. 21, 11:46 a.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Kai Zhou is a member of the Dartmouth Asian Students Collective. The article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the organization, Dartmouth Asian American Studies Collective (DAASC).