Essex Hemphill & Wayson Jones | Photo Credit: Daniel Cima
It’s a typical Friday afternoon and after what seems like a long ass work week I cannot wait to get the f – – – away to something non-work related. With the simple swivel of my chair, I go from work to home computer where I can turn my attention to Facebook, Twitter, and email messages. “Stop the presses,” I think to myself, as I came across a story suggestion from a friend to read up on this documentary about a famous back-in-the-day, black coffeehouse located in DC. And my ears start to perk up because I am excited by what I am reading. Fierceness Served!The ENIKAlley Coffeehouse is a “documentary on DC Black LGBTQ artists who during the 80s launched a national gay cultural movement.” Social activists, politicians, artists, including the likes of Essex Hemphill and Audre Lorde, have performed at this venue. I reach out to Christopher Prince, activist/ artist member of the project’s Steering Committee, to arrange an interview. To my delight, he answers that he’s interested in sharing more details about this project.
PrideIndex (PI): Christopher, I thank you very much for agreeing to talk with me today about your project.
Christopher Prince (CP): My pleasure.
PI: Okay, so let’s start off with an introduction of this important project.
CP: Well, my name is Christopher Prince, Washington DC native. I am the Project Director for the documentary film, Fierceness Served! The ENIKAlley Coffeehouse. This is a documentary short, sponsored by Humanities DC, on the black LGBTQ art scene in Washington DC during the 1980s. Specifically, a performance and meeting venue that was used by the community during the 80s and early 90s.
PI: Do you have any photographs or actual footage from that period that is being used in the documentary?
CP: Yes, there is an archive that includes all kinds of archival photographs of promotional [material] and stuff like that will be in the film. There is no footage. However, curiously enough, we have footage from a little bit after that, but nothing [from] in the venue itself.
PI: Give us a brief background in terms of where did this project come? How did it come about? And what is the one thing you want us to take away from it?
CP: Well the project came about from the experiences of one of my Steering Committee members, Mr. Wayson Jones. It happened a few years ago at the Smithsonian National Gallery, [in a series of lectures] on a downtown Washington venue, by the name of DC Space. Wayson] attended and noticed notice that the community that he was part of, which is a black LGBTQ community of artists, was not mentioned. And our community performed at this venue for many years, and quite regularly. So he came to the conclusion that it would really be unrealistic to think of anyone else telling your story, that when it comes to your history, your experiences, you have to tell your own story. He and I talked, and we decided we would do just that. And we discovered a grant opportunity by Humanities DC to do a short documentary on DC history. We applied for the grant and got it. So it’s been a year-and-a-half process of putting this together. The premiere is going to be virtual on Saturday, August 21, 2021. And what we hope people get from it is inspiration. And also to kind of spread a bit of LGBTQ history. Of this Coffeehouse cohort, most famous are Essex Hemphill, the black gay poet, and Michelle Parkerson, a black lesbian filmmaker. He contributed to the monumental experimental documentary, Tongues Untied. It was there politically, that the seeds of the first black LGBTQ political organization in the country, the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. It started as the Baltimore and DC Coalition of Black Gays, which used to meet at The Coffeehouse. There was also a black lesbian organization that was very popular and influential in DC during the 80s called Sapphire Sapphos that also met at The Coffeehouse. So this venue was a meeting place for activists and for artists who ultimately ended up having national reputations and influences when it comes to carving out a black gay and lesbian cultural identity in the United States.
Essex Hemphill was the editor of the anthology Brother to Brother, in which he finished up some of the work of Joseph Beam. Beam was also a member of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. Photographer Sharon Farmer was also in that group. Sharon ended up being the first black woman to head the White House photography staff. She was the White House photographer under the second Clinton Administration. So this ended up being an influential group of black gay and lesbians.
PI: That is just outstanding. Outstanding. Whenever we find the resources, we’re able to document our experience on film, and I want to commend you for this. It is highly important to tell our own stories.
CP: It is very important to always tell our stories. Indeed, especially you know, in this day and age, when, as far as gay people in America, we are still under assault politically. Culturally, we are having a renaissance when you think about the work for black artists in film and television, but the gay stories—now queer stories—being told are the same; our history is, you know, relegated to Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. We have a cultural foundation, a political foundation, that I think should be recognized. Some attention should be brought to it. Not only for the bigger picture, but also to let the young active queer population today know that they have a foundation of real inspiration. Let them know that the struggle did not just happen, that they have ancestors behind them, you know, who forged the path that has been cut for them.
PI: I like this YouTube video “What Will Be Bombed Today” What’s that?
CP: Yeah, that’s Essex Hemphill writing about the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. I think that YouTube clip is being performed by Michelle Parkerson, Wayson Jones, and Essex Hemphill.
PI: I’m looking at this Coffeehouse website and something called The Four of Us; is this actually at the venue, or is this an event somewhere else?
CP: That is somewhere else. So, The Coffeehouse was a gathering place for poets, for visual artists, for singers, for political activists. And I think it’s a great story of community and collaboration. This happened during the time of the AIDS crisis, so as artists, we were offering our services to fundraisers and events. And you know, the first Black Gay Pride was held in Washington, DC. And we were all part of that burgeoning identity and culture. So, the group, The Four of Us, and others that I mentioned, we ended up performing extensively in the DC area, in New York City, and around the country. Essex Hemphill went on to meet Isaac Julian in London, and Marlon Riggs in San Francisco. Michelle Parkerson’s work on Audre Lorde is called A Litany for Survival. She also did a documentary on Stormé De Larverie, the male who was the emcee for The Jewelbox Review. So this is, you know, a group of black gay and lesbian artists and activists that people don’t really know about. The story hasn’t been told as a collective narrative, and that’s what we’re doing with this film.
PI: How many minutes is this film? And why is it a short and not a feature length?
CP: It is 30 minutes. It is a short because when we couldn’t get enough funding to make it longer.
PI: Okay, so you’re working with what you had; there’s nothing wrong with that.
CP: The initial grant that we applied for was for short documentaries. We had intentions of expanding it to a longer piece. But then COVID hit, and it kind of messed up all our plans and diverted people’s attention; the money kind of shifted to other things. And we were not able to secure the funding to make a full-length documentary.
PI: So this is going to be a virtual premiere. How do we get people to sign up for it? And where and how is it going to be viewed? Is it via Zoom? Or what source?
CP: Yes, there’s going to be a big Zoom premiere screening. We are being hosted by the Center for Black Equity, which is the national umbrella organization for all of the Black Gay Prides across the country.
PI: What about promoting this film? That logo itself would be nice to have on t-shirts or coffee mugs?
CP: We did a crowdfunding campaign to raise additional money for the film. We did make t-shirts. They were limited editions. So now we’re thinking about selling t-shirts during showings of the film.
PI: How did your sample screening turn out? What was some of the feedback you received from the audience?
CP: It was great; we were very happy with it. We had a panel discussion afterwards as well. People are really excited about the project and can’t wait to see the full-length film. They were really surprised by the historical breadth of the work and just the story, you know, of how we were connected to the national Black gay identity.
PI: How long did it actually take to do this project from conception to realization?
CP: About two years.
PI: Did you have any struggles during that two-year period? And if so, how did you overcome them?
CP: Well, the initial struggle was to find a fiscal partner, which is what our grant required us to do. We went to a gay organization that we felt was going to be a natural fit for the project. They decided not to join us. We ended up with an organization called Multimedia Training Institute (MMTI), which is a black media company that introduces DC youth to making movies and films. They partnered with us. They ended up being an equally good fit. So that was the first challenge that we had. COVID also gave us a challenge. We could not interview people live during the winter. And once we reached the peak of the pandemic, we basically had to halt productions until the weather was warm and we could start interviewing outside again. And then as things would turn out, the vaccine was developed, and we were able to get vaccinated and resume indoor interviews. So that kind of pushed our production schedule into an accelerated pace, where we had a very short prescribed period of time to do filming and interviews. And we also ended up doing interviews via Zoom. There are participants who came from as far as the west coast. We have the vocalist Blackberri, who’s from the Bay area. We have different people in Atlanta. Sadly, we had the death of two people who we really wanted to include in the film. Colin Robinson was a Trinidadian poet and activist who came to The Coffeehouse with the New York poetry collective Other Countries. And then was Ron Simmons, who was a photographer, a writer, and the long-time director of the HIV/AIDS service organization Us Helping Us. Ron hung out at The Coffeehouse and did some photography for some of our gigs we did outside of the cities. Both men died of cancer before we were able to interview them. But definitely, for us, the urgency of telling our story while we are here, you know, just lit a fire.
Pi: Tell me a little bit about you and your activism. I think that’s important to include in here too.
CP: Well, I’m a native Washingtonian. And the story of my awakening as a black gay man happened from being a part that Coffeehouse cohort. We were in our late 20s, early 30s, and we were coming around to being secure about who and what we were. My activism came as lending my services as an artist. There was the DC Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays that used to have a cultural event called Renaissance that I directed, where members of the Coffeehouse crew would perform. I was a member of the DC Coalition. Also in DC, you know, we had the search for statehood and home rule, not being able to elect our own mayor and all that kind of stuff. So, we were lending our support to the local political scene as well. Then when Black Gay Pride started, we volunteered for that. I was on the entertainment committee twice. There was a history of discrimination when it comes to the mainstream white gay community. There was a period in the 80s, where we had these big, predominantly white warehouse clubs, and those clubs would ask black gay patrons for two, sometimes three IDs, as a way to control who came into the club.
PI: I’ve gotta stop you for one second on that. In Chicago, we had to show five.
PI: Yep, five pieces of ID to get into the club.
CP: I didn’t know that similar stuff was happening across the country. So that just lets you know how white folks can be.
CP: So from that period, it shows how the DC Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays was started. It was from the discrimination, from the need to have to support, to bring attention to how AIDS was devastating the black community. We had gay organizations in DC but, you know, they had a main focus on white folks. The issues within our community were not the same issues that white people deal with. So the activism, that need for representation arose out of us wanting to take care of ourselves. I was a member of the DC Coalition, but the bulk of my work was as a cultural activist, lending my presence and services at events and fundraisers, that kind of thing. I think that sometimes as artists, we are pigeonholed and shy away from the label of activism. Because you are not organizing demonstrations, you are not considered in some circles to be an activist. I disagree with that, and other people at that time disagreed with that, because we were helping them bring money in the door, you know, helping them raise the visibility of the organization within the community. And we participated in the marches, etc., in the petition writing along with everybody else. So that’s kind of the history of my activism.
PI: What else would you like to share?
CP: Before I forget, I think that it’s important to mention that The Coffeehouse was a co-gender gathering place. It was where lesbians and gay men came and hung out together. You know, sometimes in our community, we get very segregated. The guys hanging out in one place and the sisters in another place. The Coffeehouse was co-gendered. The artists were co-gender, the people that would come and hang out were too. And when it came to the organizations, the political organizations, they were also co-gender. It was never divided. It was very much a strong, loving community. It was a collaborative thing, just like it was artistically. And I think that made it very powerful.
Ray Melrose was really the heart and soul of the Coffeehouse. The Coffeehouse was a converted carriage house in northeast DC. At this time, he was living with his partner, Gary Walker, a white guy. And they opened up their space to the community. And Ray was the person that kind of brought everybody into the Coffeehouse. Ray was at one point the president of the DC Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, and he was the bridge between the artistic and the political communities. Sadly, he died from AIDS in the early 90s. AIDS devastated our generation. We’ve lost so many great minds, so many warriors, artists, friends and lovers. This entire thing would not have happened without Ray.
PI: What about taking the name of the coffeehouse to another venue and continuing in the spirit of the original site?
CP: You know we’re kinda like all seniors. I’ll be celebrating my 66th birthday at the end of this month. It is time to pass the banner on to the next generation. One of the things that has come out while we’ve been working on the documentary is the importance of having a physical location where people can come together and bond, and exchange ideas. But when it comes to resurrecting The Coffeehouse, that’s really something we put back to the young folk. Perhaps somebody will be inspired by this film and decide to do just that. Yes, indeed, that would be wonderful.