"We are outside tonight at a church converted into a theater. It's a place for community to hang out an be a part of their stories and celebrations..."
Tonight is Tuesday Night Cafe in Little Tokyo -- a bi-weekly open mic night held every first and third Tuesday in the courtyard at the Union Center for the Arts. The MC on stage is Johneric Concordia, aka "Farmer Johneric," the Master of Cookery at Filipinotown favorite The Park's Finest BBQ. All formalities end as the first performers get up on stage on this Kid's Night: a pair of seven year old Japanese-American friends, otherwise known as Sister Friends. "Once upon a time there was a duck that did not say quack..."
Tuesday Night Cafe has been at the heart of the Asian Pacific Islander performing arts community since it began in 1999. Kids' favorite Mista Cookie Jar is the headliner tonight. "[It's] a night of poets and bands and theater and storytelling," says Traci Kato-Kiriyama one of the founders of the event. She has the busy role of a community organizer -- she is constantly hounded by questions from curious onlookers and her trusted crew, and can be seen basically running around, getting things done.
"A lot of events led up to I being inspired to do something like this," she says.
Her biggest inspiration is her parents, Traci says. She remembers that they made an effort to educate her about their experiences being interned at Manzanar. They took her to meetings and conferences, and to the annual pilgrimage. They shared with her stories, but not just their own. "They would also relate it to this bigger idea of right and wrong, and ideas of justice," Traci remembers. "Though they didn't necessarily use those words -- I think I inserted them later."
Traci learned that gaining the right kind of knowledge will always be an uphill fight -- her mom had basically told her that school is not sufficient when it comes to learning all the things you need to know in life. Both of her parents were public school teachers. "So I thought that was a pretty profound thing to be said and to hear," she says. "I took that with me forever."
Her critical activist voice comes through often in conversation: "[Manzanar] was not a mistake. It wasn't like 'oops' we dropped a ball and it just turned into camps. It was part of the plan, it was part of what this country does. It's not just the government, but what the mass of the country allows for. It's just like any other issue -- anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-everything, anti-education. That's just part of what this country does -- it makes people expendable."
She knew that somehow she had to make a change. Her teachers in school told her that she needed to build relationships with people if she were going to make changes -- she had to organize the community and be an activist.
But what does it mean to be an activist, what does it mean to be an organizer? "Organziating at the end of the day is about building meaningful relationships in order to get work done," Traci says. "We could theorize but we could leave meetings pissed off at each other because we're not willing to build good relationships with each other."
The seeds of Tuesday Night Cafe were sown in 1994 with an event dubbed Art Attack. Held at the SIPA -- Search to Involve Pilipino Americans -- in Historic Filipinotown, it successfully brought together artists from the broad API community. But it was only held once a year -- Traci and her team didn't realize the amount of work involved to organize such an event. She says, "being really inexperienced and young and just all over the place, we were so burnt out after each one."
When restoration work on the Union Center for the Arts was approaching its finish in the late 1998, the structure was quickly filled with three major arts organizations: East West Players, Visual Communications, and LA Artcore. But there was still one space to be filled: the courtyard. Not willing to let an opportunity slip by, Traci quickly contacted Evelyn Yoshimura from the building's owner the Little Tokyo Service Center, which led to talks with LTSC presient Bill Watanabe. At the time in the late 1990s, Little Tokyo was virtually dead at night, so this was a great opportunity for the LTSC to allow Traci to bring young energy into the neighborhood. "They just said we can use the space for free," remembers Traci. "They opened the doors for us. It was kind of amazing that they had that kind of trust."
Today Tuesday Night Cafe continues, with a crowd of regulars and curious strollers peeking and staying to enjoy the uniquely communal experience. Even the 7 year-old Sister Friends are well-aware of Traci's vision to use performing arts as a form of activism, as their story touches on issues that affect the lives of many Asian Americans:
When [the duck] said hello to his friends he said 'quiet quiet quiet,' then they said 'quack quack quack,' which meant 'what are you saying?' He was sad because no one understood him because of his accent. Time passed fast, and the duck went home.
Find out how you can help "Keep TN Free" on this page.
Photos by Yosuke Kitazawa