Traci Kato-Kiriyama is a writer, performer and community organizer. She is currently the director of Tuesday Night Project, and co-creator of the play Tales of Clamor.
Traci Kato-Kiriyama was a young performer the first time she realized she didn’t like waiting for opportunity — they had to be created.
She’d just started with her first theater company in Los Angeles when it became clear that there was limited space, and sometimes none at all, for Asian Americans to showcase their artistic chops. And for a queer, third-generation Japanese American daughter of two public school teachers who’d always been taught to learn and develop herself outside the school system, the idea of waiting around for spaces to be made for her — well, it didn’t make sense. “If all my people have taught me anything, it’s to pursue the stuff you can have a hand in to deliver the story,” Traci said. “Why wait? It’s right there in front of us.”
Traci’s desire to bridge different communities stems from the lessons her parents instilled in her through art. They would take her to see shows in Little Tokyo, movies at the Asian American Film Festival and speakers at a variety of conferences. Seeing Asian Americans take center stage, and share their work with the community, showed Traci the power of self-determination.
Her long-running devotion to using art for activism has seen her organize the Los Angeles AAPI community through Tuesday Night Project, which delivers a platform for AAPI creatives to connect and express freely, and complete her first successful production run of Tales of Clamor. Tales is a powerful theatrical case study she co-created with Kennedy Kabasare which examines silence, the power it takes to break it, the model minority myth, community and the 1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which was appointed by Congress as an official study of Executive Order 9066.
To ensure Tales’ message of solidarity was accurately reflected, she worked closely with Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, a non-profit Japanese American organization, to develop the performance. She was granted access to rarely seen archived video footage of the commission hearings. She’s an active member of the Nikkei Progressives, an intergenerational Japanese American activist group based in Little Tokyo, and Vigilant Love, a grassroots movement of Muslim and Japanese American activists working together to fight Islamophobia. Showing up for others is a huge part of who she is and what she does. “Again, I credit my parents for setting me up really well, for introducing me to a plethora of elders, big sisters, big cousins who raised me,” she said. “They raised me with an idea of interconnectedness and connection between struggle and history and time.”
Two years ago, Traci became a breast cancer survivor. When she first shared news of her diagnosis on her website, her inbox flooded with emails from hundreds of women — but that wasn’t what surprised Traci the most. While plenty of the messages were from white women sharing books they had written about their cancer journey, there were multitudes of women who had been keeping their diagnoses a secret, and 100 percent of those women were Asian. Some were even close friends who had never divulged what they were going through. One woman had kept her diagnosis a secret for 17 years.
The idea that Asian women felt such stigma and were less inclined to be vocal about such a difficult experience struck a chord with Traci. Now she seeks to share her story to help give voice to women of color who share the same experience.
At the end of the day, it’s people who propel Traci to create, to organize and to achieve. “I want [freedom] for everybody,” she said. “My hope is that everyone feels empowered and self-determined enough to do what speaks to them. If that’s exciting to you, that’s the stuff I want to support.”