In “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Wong takes on the topic of the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian-American women, and she does it with great charm and piquant humor. Written and performed by Wong, the show has a rhythmic ebb and flow between poignancy and comedy. A San Francisco native, Wong insists the show is fictional, not autobiographical. She traced her family back three generations to China and found no mental illness. In fact, she says, “There’s no mental illness in China! It’s crazy!”
I saw the stage show last year in Los Angeles, and the motion picture was shot before an audience, which is necessary because Wong includes much audience participation. Directed by Michael Closson, this is an effective recording of the stage show, but it is also cinematic with close-ups and a dollying camera.
Wong organizes the show along the “dramatic arc of fiction,” illustrated with an overhead projector, but she keeps getting stuck on the “crisis” part of the arc. When the show opens, Wong — wearing gray cargo pants and a yellow-green sweater — is knitting while sitting amid a pile of colorful bolts of thread. She explains that when you drop a stitch in knitting, you can never get the stitch back (I’ll have to take her word of it), and some Asian-American women are the “dropped stitches of our community.” Cases in point include a Cambodian woman whose English is insufficient to explain to a doctor that her baby cries all the time, and the Korean-Japanese student who’s cracking under high pressure from her family to succeed in school.
For guidance, Wong consults successful Asian-American women, ranging from journalist Connie Chung and actor Lucy Liu to porn stars Annabel Chong and Asia Carrera. They’re no help; their stories don’t follow the dramatic arc.
In one brilliant scene, Wong shows what a woman goes through seeking help from the government mental-health-care system. The cumulative effects of an abusive and neglectful home life have rendered her desperate. “I don’t want to be afraid of my memories,” she says. Of course, the health-care bureaucracy itself is enough to drive a person crazy. When the bureaucrats in the show attribute the lack of health care to “budget cuts,” every taxpayer should feel ashamed.
But “Cuckoo’s Nest” is anything but a dour, lugubrious show. In one scene, Wong leads the audience in singing “Wong Are the World,” adding new lyrics to the 1984 anthem “We Are the World.” Wong notes that blacks and whites are in that video, but no Asians. She reports happily, however, that her community can participate by watching the video at home.
Wong gives a highly energetic, appealing performance. She has been developing this show for a few years and has written a provocative, perspicacious script.
“Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” could inspire others to write and perform shows on an infinite number of important issues. Wong has created a form of social theater that teems with possibilities. —Larry Laneer