Articles | Film / Television
Downtown Hot Spot Can Be Too Cool for Words; Tuesday Night Cafe in Little Tokyo is a free outdoor venue for poetry and more
By: Clare Kleinedler
Los Angeles Times
As the roar of an overhead helicopter attempts to drown out his poetry, Eddie Kim clears his throat and raises his voice.

"I'm riding to school on a bicycle. I fall down and scratch my knees. I'm crying. I'm crying.... And then I realize I'm 23," he says, his voice quivering slightly from the cold.

Now it's the audience that's roaring as Kim takes a quick bow and returns to his seat.

Competing with outdoor noise and chilly weather isn't a problem for Kim or any of the dozen performers who regularly participate in the Tuesday Night Cafe. The free event, which takes place on the first and third Tuesday of every month, is held at the Union Center for the Arts in Little Tokyo--or, rather, outside the theater in the courtyard.

Since it started in early 1999, the cafe has become the place for spoken-word poets, musicians, singers and dancers to try out new material in a live setting. The people who attend come with an open mind and a supportive attitude; if an artist's work isn't appreciated, they might get only a few claps, but they're never booed or ridiculed.

This atmosphere is what poet Traci Kato-Kiriyama, 28, had in mind when she first dreamed up the cafe a few years ago. Along with friends Glenn Suravech and Ryan Suda, Kato-Kiriyama got permission from the Little Tokyo Service Center (which owns the theater) to use the courtyard for an ongoing performing arts night.

"I remember the day Traci told me about it," says Suravech, 34, who performs in the cafe's house band. "We were sitting at this restaurant and she said, 'You know, I want to start this scene.' We were comparing it to something like [the band] Ozomatli and the music events they had which led to their scene--we used that as a model for this. So we basically just started with a microphone and a karaoke machine and just did it."

Eventually, the karaoke machine gave way to more professional sound equipment, lighting and even a designated host to introduce the performers. With no budget, people had to donate their time and expertise--something they did with no complaints. Suda, 31, started taking on various tech-related duties such as sound and recording, while another friend, Gerry Linsangan, 38, volunteered his lighting skills to ensure that the performers looked good. Kato-Kiriyama booked the acts and created an e-mail list to spread the word about the cafe.

"Everyone pitched in, and we improvised," Suda says. "A few times we couldn't get the lights up or there wasn't enough extension cord, but we managed to pull together and get through it."

Since its meager beginnings, the cafe has far exceeded Kato- Kiriyama's dream of a place for Asian American and all local performers to have their art seen and heard. The scene has given a little bit of life to this part of downtown, which is normally dead- calm after business hours. More importantly, the cafe has inspired "normal people," as Linsangan puts it, "to get out there and become artists themselves."

One of those former "normal people" is the cafe's host, 22-year- old Johneric Concordia. A self-proclaimed "counselor, community organizer, thief and dropout," Concordia warmly introduces each artist with a quick joke and a smile. He also performs his own poetry and is a favorite among regular attendees.

"In June 2000, my best friend, Arnold Moreno, died in an accident," says Concordia, explaining how he came to be a poet. "Due to his lack of insurance, he was sent to four different hospitals; he died [at the hospital] two blocks from where we live. He was a poet, and he inspired me to write. My first piece was about the circumstances of his death, which I performed at the cafe for the first time. It was a fund-raiser for Arnold's funeral."

Even Kato-Kiriyama's own spoken-word trio, Zero 3, was born out of the Tuesday Night Cafe. Though she and fellow Zero 3 member Kennedy Kabasares, 33, had been performing separately for several years, member Edren Sumagaysay had never read a piece of work aloud until he started attending the cafe.

"I was so scared! I sat down in a chair and there was a microphone in front of me.... My hands were shaking, my voice was shaking and I wasn't even looking at the audience," says Sumagaysay, 27. "I read it, and I thought it [was terrible], but then I heard applause, and I got this feeling of, 'Well, I guess it [wasn't] that bad!'"

Whether it is a Japanese flutist playing traditional music, a trio of flame-throwers or an amateur spoken-word poet, the cafe and its audience welcomes everyone. And though the majority of performers are Asian American, the cafe is open to any local artist, Kato-Kiriyama says.

"When I first moved here from Chicago, I moved into the Little Tokyo Hotel [down the street from the cafe], and these guys used to keep me up all night!" jokes Umar Rashid, 25. "So I came down to check it out, and even though it was a little intimidating because the majority of the performers were Asians, I got over it quick because everyone here is so supportive. I read my stuff here on a regular basis now."

Adds Sumagaysay: "That's what we tell people. Just come down and check it out and see how you feel."

Clare Kleinedler is an occasional contributor to the Calendar section.

Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times