Kristina Wong and Kirn Kim do NUMBERS IN NAME work

Performance artist/comedian/writer Kristina Wang (in partnership with APIs RISE) returns to East West Players with their new rendition of From Number To Name: Back To Life airing live August 5-7. As Kristina described in her last interview with me: “From number to name is a play designed with formerly incarcerated Asian-Pacific Islander Americans. The cast is made up of incarcerated former APIs, people with family inside, and their supporters. It’s a story we rarely see in our community, from the people who have experienced it.”

I asked Kristina to say a few words before giving this interview to Kirn Kim, one of the former prisoners featured in From Number To Name.

Thank you for taking the time (again) for this interview, Kristina!

Do you remember your first reaction to your appointment to be named a Pulitzer Prize finalist?

I am on. It is actually commemorated in this IG live video. It was a combination of shouting, running through the streets of Los Angeles Chinatown shouting, then sending congratulatory messages from around the world… also shouting. It’s still so unreal that a solo show I did on my pandemic sewing group gave me the same level of merit as Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder – not that I’m still one of them!

Interview: Kristina Wong and Kirn Kim doing FROM NUMBER TO NAME workHow did you first meet Kirn Kim?

I had been attending API Rise meetings as a supporter for a few months and when I first met Kirn I thought it was odd that he was the only guy in the group without tattoos nor muscles. He also had a reputation for being a bit of a “prison lawyer” – a ton of legal knowledge without an actual degree. I thought, “How did this nerdy guy survive twenty years in prison?” After he befriended me on Facebook, I googled him and my jaw dropped when I realized “OMG, he’s part of the Better Luck Tomorrow deal”. Better Luck Tomorrow was a landmark Asian-American film released in 2002, and despite director Justin Lin’s denial, it’s clearly based on Kirn’s case. It was kind of unreal, like the equivalent of meeting the real guy in Quaker Oats Pilgrim.

Interview: Kristina Wong and Kirn Kim doing FROM NUMBER TO NAME workThanks for answering some of my questions. Are you going to turn it over to Kirn now?

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Kirn!

What do you remember from your first contact with Kristina?

Kristina showed up at an API-RISE meeting and introduced herself. It’s always great to have allies from the API community join our group, as we fight the cultural shame associated with being API and impacted by the justice system. Usually people come a little shy, not knowing what to expect. But Kristina has such a presence about herself that she was hard not to notice. It was a welcome change and she brought great energy to our group.

Was it an easy sell to participate in From Number to Name?

When Kristina first mentioned the idea, I totally agreed. The arts are such a strong form of message, raising awareness about a subject that people may not know about.

I never considered myself an artist, but after participating in several major artistic projects, including the Off-Broadway production Agnus in 2017, I realized how effectively the arts could also deliver the stories I wanted to convey. From Number to Name certainly helps bring visibility to the taboo subject of incarceration among APIs.

Interview: Kristina Wong and Kirn Kim doing FROM NUMBER TO NAME workDid you have to learn a script? Or is your contribution your own true story?

Our process is that we have discussions about life inside and outside of prison. The script is derived from these discussions. They are sometimes direct accounts of our experiences. But we also combine pieces of stories to frame a larger narrative.

For example, on last year’s show, we had a scene where I was making kimchee in prison. Food is such a big factor in cultural identity, and as a Korean, it was a way for me to try to maintain a sense of myself. But consider that was before the popularity of Korean culture and cuisine in the United States. The prison guards were not too happy that I decorated the building with the smell of fermenting garlic and often confiscated it as contraband. So it was a struggle to be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

What hurdles did you overcome while setting up RISE APIs?

Interview: Kristina Wong and Kirn Kim doing FROM NUMBER TO NAME workThe biggest barrier was the cultural shame that comes with having been incarcerated before. In our early years, there were many people who refused to come to meetings because they felt it was shameful to be open about their lived experiences. But as our organization grew and we built a bigger public presence, people began to see that there was no need to struggle alone and in silence with the stresses of back to school.

Which organizations have decided to partner with API RISE?

We have partnered with Stand With Asians, Gift of Compassion, The Asian American Drug Abuse Program, Healing Urban Barrios, Chuco’s Justice Center, and Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

API-RISE helped launch the Black-API Solidarity movement in Los Angeles in response to the recent increase in anti-API violence.

We have received funding from the Clara Lionel Foundation, the New Breath Foundation, the California Endowment, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the California Board of State and Community Corrections.

A particular RISE API achievement that you are most proud of?

I’m really proud of our growth as an organization. We started as a small group of people who just took the time to be an informal support network for our members. But thanks to the hard work and dedication of our members, API RISE is beginning to make an impact in the reintegration and criminal migration space. We are passionate about helping the API community remove the stigma of mass incarceration and accept people for who they are: just people who want a better life for themselves and their families.

What future for Kirn Kim?

I recently started a job as a software developer. I had planned to be a programmer when I came home in 2012, but the opportunity to work in technology didn’t exist then for someone with my experience. I realized I could be an effective advocate in the reentry space, so my eight-year journey into the nonprofit world began. Today, with justice reform taking center stage in California, the time seemed right for me to pursue my original dream of geeking out.

Thanks again, Kirn and Kristina! I can’t wait to zoom from number to name.

To get tickets for the From Number To Name: Back To Life live stream from August 5-7, click the button below:

Maria D. Ervin