There’s a small episcopal church that resides on East Huron Street that few remark upon when passing it. It goes unnoticed for the most part, its plain demeanor disguising itself within the rows and rows of college residences. But this church, strangely enough, has a been a home for generations of students passing through the University of Michigan, where jazz students and regional bands alike have gathered to perform, celebrate, study and — most importantly — eat.
Canterbury House has seen the likes of Neil Young and Janis Joplin grace its interior since its inception over fifty years ago, and today features musical series highlighting artists from within the university and beyond. But according to School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Alexis Lombre, something was still missing from Canterbury and from the University as a whole at the beginning of the year: community. A community for artists of color and a community to break down the academic barriers of SMTD — this is what Lombre strived to create, and what she has only started to this year.
“Each program within the school is kind of segregated; actors hang with actors; jazz musicians hang with the jazz musicians; vocalists spend time with vocalists,” Lombre said in a phone interview. “I wanted a space where we could bring everyone together; you could throw some creative writers in there, just have some people of color who just like the arts, and have a community.”
But to create this community, she had to start somewhere. After the chaplain of the episcopal center offered up the space to Lombre this past fall, she took advantage of it and put on the first “A Night for Us: Colorful Soul.” For the first two months, however, participation was sparse, but turnout was not. She paid for expenses out of pocket and negotiated student performances through her own means, but welcomed crowds to the events; this fledgling series, as she quickly found out, had an eager audience.
And then it took off. Come November, participation doubled and from Lombre’s desire for a community for artists of color at the University sprang the group Artists of Color in Ann Arbor. Both a way to receive money and bolster the impact of the series, this group has only begun to foster the much needed support network between artists of color at the University, a community Lombre found noticeably absent her freshman year.
“It’s a different type of attitude that I’d like to see here in Ann Arbor, a place where people really have a place for artists of color to hangout and for people of color to just be themselves,” Lombre said. “Because there are a lot of initiatives that are kind of … stocky. There’s a room with lighting that’s awkward because it still feels like I’m in school, and nobody wants that. Nobody actually wants to hang out at school. You want to go out somewhere.”
But the music is only one part of the soul. The food is the other, vital part.
“That’s why we always have soul food there; soul food just brings a different type of attitude instead of having plates of cheese and crackers and shrimp cocktails,” she said.
It’s this transformation from stocky to soulful, tense to chill that creates the unique atmosphere of Lombre’s series. Community, especially a welcoming one, invites a kind of electric relaxation between friends and strangers alike. Which is Lombre’s goal ultimately — to foster an environment that supports artists and people of color through music, food and groove.
“I think this event is a very organic and authentic way for people who haven’t experienced culture of people of color to really experience it within their own comfort zone,” Lombre continued.
And in its most fundamental sense, Lombre’s series champions simultaneous activism and celebration. It is meant to inspire and facilitate a molding of divisions on our campus and others. Because even though this event is young, a sprouting bud among the many campaigns and initiatives to arise on campus since the election, it is also boundless with Lombre and a collection of other students at its stern.
“I am not the type of person who wants to keep anything small,” Lombre said. “I’m a dreamer, and I would love to see it grow. Eventually one of my dreams is to have it as a campus college tour where different campuses get ‘A Night for Us.’”
It’s an ambitious plan, but one with potential. Campus has its divisions, as do many others, but this community is one step in the right direction towards healing them. While her vision for this community is one rooted in celebration and support for artists and people of color on campus, it is also meant to heal.
“The way I want to bring the political (divisions) together is not in a harsh, protesting type of way because there’s a lot of people doing that. My way is to basically invite everyone into your home and treat them really well to help them realize that people of color are welcoming,” Lombre added. “We should just care about each other, and that will change things.”
And Lombre, along with SMTD juniors Brian Juarez, Tristan Cappel and Mike Perlman, is caring. Artists of Color in Ann Arbor — the organization that both sprung from this series and allows it to subsist — has grown since its inception in November. Partnering with the art and social justice organization Redefine, areas of Greek Life and several other organizations, ACAA supports the series, but the series is only the beginning.
“At the bare minimum, at the least by the time I graduate, folks of color and artists of color will know that they have a home at the University of Michigan. That’s the bare minimum,” Lombre said.
But the bare minimum is just that — bare. A community and a series like this has room to grow and the power to actively change the social climate on campus, a climate born more from fear of the unfamiliar than from anything else. Because, as Lombre explained, the idea for this series was born from anger and frustration. But this anger and negativity transformed itself into a positive, life-affirming event.
So consider this a call for art as well as a call for community. To the creators, the artists, the people of color who have something to proclaim and proclaim proudly, this community is here for you.
“I’m open to musicians, I’m open to a group of actors who want to do monologues," Lombre said. "I’m open to poets, spoken word people. I’m open to any type of art — producers, if you want to do a DJ set, I don’t care. Anybody.”
If you are any of these people, check them out on Facebook or Maizepages. The next “A Night for Us: Colorful Soul” will be taking place Thursday, March 30 from 7 to 10 p.m. at Canterbury House, located at 721 E Huron Street. Come for the music, stay for the mac ‘n’ cheese and peach cobbler. It’s a place to celebrate, groove and to meet people and hear stories that are worthy of our unworthy ears.