Studio Series Artist Profile: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

“I’m looking forward to experiencing how the characters in FORMOSA move people’s hearts, minds, and spirits. Live audience chemistry is a critical part of my process, and fresh energy in the rehearsal room challenges and invites me to be even more expansive and fearless in this exploration.” – Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

Spoken word artist Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai has been featured in over 450 performances worldwide at venues including the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the House of Blues, the Apollo Theater, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and three seasons of the award-winning “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” The author of Inside Outside Outside Inside(2004), Thought Crimes (2005), No Sugar Please (2008), and the CD’s Infinity Breaks(2007) and Further She Wrote (2010), Tsai has shared stages with Mos Def, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Amiri Baraka, Harry Belafonte, and many more.

During her creative residency Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai has been developing her next work, Formosa.

Formosa finds Tsai exploring western ideals of beauty, globalization and labor through the lens of Barbie doll manufacturing in her ancestral homeland of Taiwan. Formosa derives its name from the Portuguese “Ilha Formosa,” meaning beautiful island, coined by sailors in 1566 after spotting the island of Taiwan. In Formosa, Tsai raises questions about global capital, beauty, exploitation, and choice through poetic narrative and counter-narrative contrasting the experience of Taiwanese factory workers with the material creation of Barbie – the Western icon of beauty. She further investigates how the global economy leads women of color to strive for these same standards of Western beauty through skin lightening, eyelid surgery, jawbone shaving andother forms of self-mutilation. Collaborators include Jesse Y. Jou (Director), Amissa Miller (Dramaturg), Jessica Chen (Choreographer), and Chie Morita (Producer).

Studio Series: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai
Jan 20 -21 at 6pm
In Process Talks moderated by Kamilah Forbes
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FORMOSA is an evening-length spoken word poetry dance theater solo show examining cultural identity, beauty, globalization, and plastic surgery via the history of Barbie doll manufacturing in Taiwan. The idea for this project first sparked in me early last year when I found myself inexplicably drawn to a book detailing the history of Barbie dolls from her debut in the U.S. as a “teenage fashion model” in 1959. Weeks later, while performing at the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association Conference in St. Louis, I learned that Barbie dolls were actually manufactured for twenty years (1967-1987) in Taishan, Taiwan, close to where my grandparents relocated after fleeing the Communist Revolution in China.

As I looked over the audience of Taiwanese women, both 1st and 2nd generation, I thought of my female family members in Taiwan and ubiquitous conversations regarding female beauty including the pervasive use of “Mei Bai” (skin lightening creams) and plastic surgery for eyelids, leading to further “Westernization” of the East Asian face. The confluence of these ideas kept knocking around in my brain as well as the fact of Taiwan itself being called “Formosa” in the West for centuries on account of being named “La Ilha Formosa” by Portuguese sailors in the mid-1500’s.

For years, I’ve wanted to do a project that explored ideas of beauty and Western gaze in Taiwan, and when I learned about the Mattel corporation’s history in Taishan, I realized that this was the concept and calling that I’ve been looking for – a metaphor and way of telling this story of body manipulation and gaze through tracking the stories of factory workers who participated in the material production of these dolls. This material production, in turn, feeds an iconic standard of Western beauty. This, in turn, feeds a desire for women of color around the world to conform to these standards of beauty through plastic surgery.

In addition to the project’s creative possibilities, I am excited by the opportunity to look at the relationship between colonization and modern-day globalization. In November 2011, I conducted a research trip to the Taishan Doll Museum in Taiwan, that archives the city’s relationship with Mattel. What I found there was a much richer and powerful story of the complications of global economy. While factory workers were being paid far less than their American counterparts, their work at Mattel afforded a community, wages to raise families, and an overall higher standard of living than those in Taiwanese society, who were struggling to survive under Chiang Kai-Shek’s martial law.

For us in the West, Barbie is a reminder of an ingrained impossible standard that we could never live up to (a la Kenneth Clark’s doll experiments). In Taishan, Barbie was a way to have a better life, while women there dealt with their own issues of colorism, classism, violence, and beauty myths. After returning from Taishan, I completed a first draft, which has again taken an exciting evolution from the triggering subject matter. What has emerged is a four character solo show that explores these issues from radically different perspectives across time and geography, all tied together by the locus of cross-cultural gaze and the economics of beauty. Choreography will draw from a wide range of influences to communicate the characters’ stories and incorporate spoken word poetry, physical theater, and eventually, video, and mask work. All of these devices are employed in service of exploring the mutability of the Asian female body.

The character storylines that have emerged are: Vega, a Spanish sailor from the mid-1600’s who arrives in Taiwan in the footsteps of the Portuguese and finds himself in a warring world of Taiwanese aborigines and Dutch missionaries; Harajuku Barbie Maybe is a present-day Asian American female hip hop mc who has made a devilish pact with her record label to transform her body via plastic surgery only to find that her body parts are rebelling against (and possessing) her; Hsiu-Mei, a young woman from rural Taiwan who works at the Barbie doll factory in 1967 and soon finds herself caught between whether to use her new-found economic privilege for her own desires or her younger brother who has been incarcerated under martial law; Pinky, a Chinese girl, adopted by a white American family in San Francisco during the 1980’s based partially on perceptions of her outstanding physical beauty.

In addition to my contributions as writer and performer for Formosa, Jesse Y. Jou (Yale) will serve as director for the project with choreography by Jessica Chen (J Chen Dance Project), dramaturgy by Amissa Miller (Columbia, NYU), masks by Beto Sepulveda (Urban Arts Partnership), and producing by Chie Morita (Public Theater).