LOS ANGELES — Tired of being an internet activist, performance artist Kristina Wong left behind the comfortable safety of her armchair and computer to set out for three weeks in northern Uganda. Her travels to the city of Gulu and remote rural villages are the subject of her one-person show The Wong Street Journal, in which a quest for third-world solidarity and personal legacy leads to a difficult self-examination of whiteness, privilege, and decolonization. The performance is part oral storytelling, supported by handmade props and live music, and part radical TED talk in which a veil is pulled away to reveal not feel-good “illuminating business principles” but a reflective opportunity to situate ourselves in legacies of colonialism and oppression.
A social media gadfly, Wong is known as much for her Twitter persona as she is for her performances. In October 2013, Wong set out for Uganda as part of a three-week residency at the Volunteer Action Network, a microloan organization that helps women fund small businesses in a region of Africa short on capital. The radical Chinese-American who dreamed of solidarity with women of color from the Global South discovers upon her arrival that Ugandans perceive her as a mzungu, a popular Swahili word to describe people of European descent.
The experience of being perceived as white unsettles Wong’s position of power and privilege. Back in the US, she’s part of the oppressed minority punching up against white supremacy and patriarchy. In Uganda, she begins to feel like the kind of privileged outsider who airdrops herself into a faraway country, takes pictures with the locals, and returns to her homeland to share platitudes about the resilience of third-world people. Wong’s strength as a performer is being able to express this personal discomfort in context, making us laugh at her insecurities while expanding our definition of how privilege works across race and geography.
Anecdotes about giving awkward speeches to polite Ugandans and crying in front of a classroom of young women who lived through Uganda’s civil war are as funny as they are cringeworthy. With each story, Wong treads the cliché of self-discovery in which the locals help the outsider more than the outsider helps the locals, but Wong’s self-critical asides and political savvy prevent the show from becoming maudlin and gross. The friendships she makes during her stay in Uganda also give shape to the country — Bukenya Muusa, the young founding member of Volunteer Action Network, the women who work tirelessly as one of the many nonprofit coordinators, and a group of upstart rappers Wong befriends while walking the streets of Gulu make up a society working to rebuild itself after decades of colonialism and civil war.
One of the central friendships in the show is with a young rapper and recording engineer named Nerio. Asked to rap along in a recording session, Wong obliges by recording several tracks for an album of Ugandan hip-hop, some of which are performed in the show. Again, Wong faces the discomfort of being perceived as a mzungu when Nerio asks her to help finance a studio — surely, as an American, she has the resources to help out a struggling artist, notwithstanding the reality that Wong herself is a struggling artist. In a farewell meeting buttressed by good feelings, Wong agrees to help out, although her good intentions lead to consequences for Nerio after she returns to the US.
The Wong Street Journal doesn’t conclude with a comforting resolution about the capacity of the privileged to help the poor, or a tidy summary of how Wong’s experience in Uganda transformed her life. Her three weeks in Uganda were certainly transformative, but the impact of such a visit weighs heavily in her favor — the Ugandan women she purportedly volunteered to help can determine their own futures, with or without her help, and Wong’s attempt at leaving a personal legacy in Uganda is tempered by the realization that such paternalistic impulses reflect the colonialism she is trying to fight. Instead, Wong gives back by doing what she knows best: telling her stories through performance and craft. The stage props and set are hand-sewn in felt; the names of famous revolutionaries show up on a fake stock exchange board while a rotating panorama depicts the show’s various locales, giving color and warmth to Wong’s stories.
What I would have liked to see more of is a further dive into the “soft” privilege of light skin and being American, the idea that simply being a person of color does not automatically place you in solidarity with people halfway across the world. Wong’s performance addresses “mzungu” privilege as a Chinese-American, but stops short of addressing anti-blackness within Asian communities. Also unclear is what Wong expected to accomplish in Uganda in the first place. She seems savvy enough to know that three weeks in any country is unlikely to contribute change, let alone leave a legacy.
The name of the late activist Grace Lee Boggs appears on the felt ticker board as a reminder of someone who understood the stakes of joining a community and being part of a long, sustained struggle. While Wong could have followed Boggs’s example, she chose to learn the hard way the limits of her own activism.
The Wong Street Journal was performed at the REDCAT (631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles) November 12–November 15.