It was a quirk of timing and fate that led Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai toward the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. At the time she lived in Chicago, and was only in town to for an early meeting. But as the chaos of that morning ensued, Tsai and hundreds of other commuters were stuck in New York City’s vast subway system, which had come to a complete stop as the twin towers crumbled. In the middle of it all, Tsai was there, stranded, on a trail filled with confused strangers.
One of those strangers, an older black man, sensed her anxiety and did the only that made sense at that moment: told her all the reasons he loved New York City. The summertime parades, the festivals, the music. His kids had long since moved away, but he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
In the eleven years since that fateful morning, the world has changed, and so has Tsai. This week, the spoken word artist and New York City resident debuts her new theater ensemble “Say You Heard My Echo.” The new work explores the impact of 9/11 and its aftermath on three Asian American women: an activist, a veteran who’s returned home, and a woman whose family has been affected by interrogation. Each woman is in conversation with a spiritual figure: Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s female disciple; Guan Yin (associated with compassion as venerated by East Asian buddhists); and Aisha (one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives).
“Sometimes people talk about 9/11 as a very different moment in time, that it’s just something that happened and now we’re in a different place,” Tsai told Colorlines.com. “But I think that people’s lives went in a different direction. People started to reorganize their relationships, their priorities and their values, the ways in which they moved across the city.”
The context for the work is decidedly political. The past decade has seen an unprecedented expansion of U.S. military action, domestically and abroad. Thousands have been killed in recognized wars, while the Obama Administration’s continued use of unmaned drones to kill suspected enemies around the world has come under increased scrutiny. New York City has also become the testing ground for aggressive and controversial surveillance of its residents, particularly in Muslim communities. The NYPD has set up vast spying networks of Muslim Student Associations along the East Coast, and set up a special division to keep an eye on Muslim community spaces. Seth Freed Wessler reported for Colorlines.com that none of those efforts ever gleaned a single lead or terrorism-related investigation.
For Tsai, those politics fed into what ultimately became a collective project. She approached the idea of the play on last year’s anniversary. Nico Daswani, program manager at the Asian American Arts Alliance, gave Tsai a writing prompt that asked her to explore the impact of 9/11 on Asian American communities. What followed was months of writing and re-writing, journaling and pushing past moments of writer’s block. And the work was guided, editing, and shaped by a community of artists, including director Jesse Y. Jou, Flushing Townhall Workshop Production, and the Asian Women’s Giving Circle. Not to mention the more than 150 people who raised over than $8,000 on Kickstarter to help fund the project.
Each character is based slightly on Tsai’s own life, including her days as a member of her college ROTC. A seasoned spoken word vet, this was the first full-length piece that Tsai had written on her own dealing with fictional characters with what she calls a “consistent through line.” The final product is a spoken word theater ensemble, a form that’s driven by one central question: Where does poetry exist in the lives of these characters?
There were plenty of answers. The poetry could be in a prayer, in a song, a protest chant, or tucked inside of military cadences.
“It’s been a really exciting process for me to think about these characters and where poetry exists in each of their lives.”