The young woman with the bobbed, blond-streaked black hair took a deep breath as she adjusted the microphone, then unleashed a rhythmic rant intended to inspire and provoke:
"This is for the sisters who violently scrub off pigments of their skin
"Actively extracting scraps of 'other' just to fit in
"Scabs from battles we never win. . . ."
The open-mike night's theme on this November night was "Bringing Down the Beast: Struggle and Resistance." One by one, the evening's 10 presenters stood in front of the crowd of about 40 people in the Asian Arts Initiative's Chinatown North headquarters. Then, they unleashed their words.
Besides a Filipino woman who encouraged her fellow non-whites to accept their uniqueness, there was a Hmong woman who sang and performed one of her grandmother's songs; an African American man who repeated: "Black. It's not just beautiful. It's bold." A white man. A Latina. All performed.
"We want to encourage new voices and bring new voices to our community," said Gayle Isa, the Initiative's executive director. "By picking a theme, in addition to there being artistic development, this can be a forum about different community issues and concerns."
Today brings the third installment of the Initiative's "Family Style" open-mike nights. The event is being held at the nonprofit's headquarters at 1219 Vine St. Admission is on a sliding scale from $5 to $10.
"Family Style" is both a reference to family-style meals served in some Asian and other ethnic communities and the fact that the event is family-friendly and open to extended "family" from non-Asian backgrounds. This month's theme, which can be loosely adhered to by participants, is "Hapa Happy: Celebrating All That Is Mixed and Multi." Hapa is a Hawaiian term used to describe someone of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage.
"It's almost like an artist exchange," said Catzie Vilayphonh, who cohosts the shows with partner Michelle Myers. "It's also a safe place for emerging artists, where people can make mistakes halfway through and the audience will say, 'No, keep going.' "
The Asian Arts Initiative began in 1993 as a collaboration with the Painted Bride Art Center. The initial goal was to respond to possible racial tensions in the wake of the Los Angeles riots in 1992 following the "not guilty" verdict for three police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King.
But the Initiative grew into an arts center offering performances, exhibitions and artist training as well as a community center that welcomes all races. The expansion of the Convention Center forced the organization to move from 13th and Cherry Streets to its current home last year.
The move to Chinatown North has been a good one, Isa said. The Initiative has twice as much space, including dedicated gallery and performance space, and plans to further develop a multi-tenant arts facility.
And perhaps, participants said, now is a good time for the Asian Arts Initiative to expand its presence: Earlier this month, Asian students in a South Philadelphia high school were reportedly harassed and beaten because of their race.
"People of different racial backgrounds can come together and share a creative space and build cross-culture relationships that can counter these daily experiences," Isa said of her organization's events.
The Initiative's events are open to anyone. Past performers range from students stepping in front of an audience for the first time in years to veterans who travel the open-mike circuit between New York and Washington. Besides the poetry often associated with such events, "Family Style" also welcomes songs and any other type of audio or visual performance that can be completed in about five minutes.
Show cohost Myers opened the November open-mike night, and her performance was one of the most memorable. She performed a poem she wrote about the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin. Chin, a Chinese American man, was beaten to death outside Detroit by two men angry that American autoworkers were losing jobs. The men blamed Japan for many of their woes and they assumed Chin was Japanese.
The night of the fatal beating was to have been a celebration of Chin's forthcoming wedding. When his mother tried to discourage him from going out with the boys, he promised her it was going to be the "last time" he did such a thing. She scolded that to say "last time" was bad luck. Her son went out anyway.
Myers' poem ended by echoing Chin's mother's last words to her son:
"Don't say, 'Last Time.'
"Say, 'I will always remember you.'
"Say, 'I will always fight for you.'
"Say, 'I will always, always love you.' "
If You Go
"Family Style," the Asian Arts Initiative's monthly open-mike night, 7:30 tonight at 1219 Vine St. This month's theme is "Hapa Happy: Celebrating All That Is Mixed and Multi." Anyone who wants to perform can e-mail michelle@yellowrage.
com or sign up 30 minutes before showtime. The show also will feature slam poet Thaddeus Rutkowski and a showing of Anomaly, a film by Jessica Chen Drammeh. Admission: $5 to $10. Information: 215- 557-0455, http://asianartsinitiative.