Living Legend: Sylvia Ann Soares discusses her life lessons

Ms. Sylvia Ann Soares is a legend in RI with many accolades, including a certificate she received this year from the mayor for her hard work and dedication in the arts. She is an actor, poet and historical educator, and I recently spoke to her about some of the lessons she’s learned throughout her life.

Damont Combs (Motif): For those who don’t know you but should, can you please introduce yourself?

Sylvia Ann Soares: I am Sylvia Ann Soares, second generation Cape Verdean, Rhode Island native and the second Cape Verdean girl in Rhode Island to attend college in 1959. I am an actor, writer, director and historian. I belong to SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity Association. One of the first members of Trinity Repertory Company, I left Providence in 1965 to pursue an acting career and returned home in 1981. More about career later. I earned an honors associate’s degree at CCRI in 1993 and an honors BA in theatre from Brown University in 1995 at 54 years old. I will be 79 in November 2020.

DC: Can you tell me about some of the important projects you’ve been a part of?

SAS: There is far more public cultural activity than when I was young here in the ’50s and ’60s. With funding from the RI Council for the Humanities (RICH), I give researched illustrated talks on local history and create solos enacting historical figures. RISCA and Art, Culture and Tourism have supported my projects. My creative contribution thus far has dealt with Cape Verdean and African American history in Rhode Island. All are searchable online. I’ll give you some highlights. 

I have always been available to read my poetry or pertinent poetry for charitable or activist events. For example, in 1990 for the Rape Crisis Center Art Exhibit, I read poetry of those not ready to read their own in public. In 1991-2, I read for Rhode Island Working Women and the Minority Recruitment and Child Placement Program, and in recent years for the Refugee Dream Center in Providence and others. As an actor and poet, I have performed solo in libraries from Woonsocket to Westerly, including the Athenaeum and RISD Museum a few times, at Newport Museum of Art, Tomaquag Museum, Cape Verdean Museum, Cape Verdean Progressive Center, URI Cultural Center in Kingston and Providence Feinstein, RI College, student events at Brown, Bell Street Chapel, The Mediator, the RI Black Heritage Society, the RI Historical Society, John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities, at the RI State House, at local churches including the First Baptist Church for the RI Indian Council and other organizations. I have performed in Providence Black Repertory, the Perishable, at AS220, Mixed Magic, Wilbury Fringe, PVDFest, WaterFire Arts Center, Stages of Freedom, Westerly Shakespeare, Southside Cultural Center for RI Black Storytellers, for Langston Hughes Community Readings, at Pell Chafee Center, Culture Park of New Bedford, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, at the Nora and the New Repertory in Boston, Brooklyn Museum of Art, on Zoom readings, and notably Rites and Reason Theatre at Brown’s Department of Africana Studies, performing in their highly significant social plays addressing diverse ethnicity. Rites and Reason offered beautiful roles. There, I have played a Spirit Guide; a tree hosting birds of all feathers; the mother of an ostracized lesbian; ‘Mama Africa;’ John Quincy Adams in Ifa Bayeza’s String Theory; and much more. Okay — a few additional significant projects. In the mid-80s, I joined an activist group RI Mobilization for Survival, later called RI Survival Education Fund, and performed poetry at anti-war demonstrations and events. In 1990, I joined an activist group, RIDivest, promoting divestment from Apartheid South Africa, and run by Representative Joe Newsome, Carol Bragg, Prudence Mashile of South Africa, Isabel Barten and others. I read for them at Pond Street Church and at a RIDivest local conference of African Ambassadors including Randall Robinson. In line with that, in 1992, I created a show titled Mayibuye iAfrica/Black South African Poetry, Song and Slides. The poems were from the book of poetry of the same name by South African women. ‘Mayibuye iAfrika’ means ‘Let Africa Come Back.’ Along with the reading, I played recorded South African music, popular and traditional, and showed slides, some of which were loaned by Phil West and Ann Grant. Also, did the show at the Warwick Museum in Claude Elliot’s “Black, Brown And Tan Exhibit.” 

Another great project: the same year, 1992, I was a mentor for  Rhode Island Children’s Crusade. Children who remained with the Crusades’ after-school program through high school earned a scholarship to college. So, working under Crusade director Linda A’vant Deishinni, who ran the RI Black Heritage Society then, I designed and directed A Kwanzaa Celebration featuring multi-ethnic students. Also, while at CCRI that year, and funded by RISCA, I designed a Kwanzaa program engaging local storytellers, entertainers and community leaders. I had met with elementary school teachers imploring them to engage their students in creating Kwanzaa art. I gave them all the information. Then I drove around, collected the art and hung it in what was the Atrium of CCRI Providence Campus, where we held the Kwanzaa. I went street by street placing fliers at the neighborhood homes. A local supermarket agreed to donate refreshments, which I picked up. I did all this alone because a  woman Dean of Students at CCRI at the time forbade anyone to work with me, even after my description of this cultural African American project. On short notice, she had scheduled a meeting with me during my class time to discuss the program. Requesting a different time, I opted for class and she responded in anger. She sent around a notice that no one should participate with me on my Kwanzaa program. Jack White, President of the Providence Campus, was appalled and iterated that the woman had no jurisdiction in his campus. He encouraged me to do any project that I wished at the Providence Campus. The Kwanzaa evening opened with an African drum procession and we performed for 200 people. The children came to see their art. Everyone went home with snacks and Kwanzaa reading material. I brought the program to Brown a few years later and Black students did it one year. They kept my script and likely have done it elsewhere since.

Also, 1992 was the Quincentennial, 500 years since Columbus’ invasion. I researched and designed a show: Native Americans, African Americans and American Quakers:  A Quincentennial Celebration of Love-Stories, poems and songs. In it were writings of Langston Hughes, Joy Harjo, Chief Seattle, Quaker founder John Woolman, and a Harriet Tubman song. I performed the piece for Providence Friends Meeting (Quakers) and later at the Friends Yearly Meeting at Hampshire College, Amherst, and at St. Paul’s in Wickford. I did a similar one at CCRI called  Encounter: Native American Poetry with Historical Comment on the Columbian Legacy. And I laid Columbus out.

I was at Brown from 1993 until 1995 performing in student activist events and then I was out of state until 1997. I returned to care for my mother who had Alzheimer’s until her passing in 2002. 

In 2003, under a consortium of the RI Historical Societies, I was funded by RI Council for the Humanities to write a play on slavery in RI that I titled Plantations Complex: A Harvesting of Souls. I directed four staged readings, one at the Newport Colony House. The piece is undergoing edits for an upcoming project. Also, in 2003, at Trinity Rep, under Oskar Eustis, artistic director for theatre from the Four Directions on Native American theater, I directed a staged reading of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers by resident playwright William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. 

In 2008, RICH funded my oral history project on the Local International Longshoremen’s Association, ILA Local #1329. I interviewed 14 men and transcribed the texts, including Traudi Coli’s tape of my father Arthur S. Soares, who was president of ILA #1329 for 16 of 20 years, 1954-1974. I created bios of the leaders. My presentations displayed numerous donated images of related people and dock work.

In 2013, RICH supported my research to become the ‘Living History of Nancy Elizabeth Prophet,’ the first woman graduate from RI School of Design. She was African American Narragansett Pequot, and I have performed her diary and numerous solo versions of her story, adjusted to the venue and occasion. I performed in a number of places from RISD Museum to Brooklyn Museum The first performance was at RISD Museum for Stages of Freedom’s three-day event and exhibit for the RI Black Heritage Society and most recent being in 2019 at the Newport Art Museum (see it on YouTube.) There were more attendees than usual, almost 200. My previous Prophet performances had different titles, versions on the title Defiance! This performance accompanied NAM’s exhibit “Sculpture: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney” because Whitney had supported Prophet. Whitney purchased Prophet’s wooden head ‘Congolais’ and placed it on permanent display. I have seen it there. Newport Art Museum worked with a local non-profit that serves low income populations, and they gave free tickets to people. The Black attendees were thrilled to learn about Prophet and were audibly responsive throughout the show. RISD Museum has hosted me as Prophet a few times. 

Also in 2013, RICH funded me to do illustrated talks: “Kerosene Lamp Church” about Sheldon Street Church in Providence, the First Cape Verdean Protestant Church in America, and then in 2015 for “Eddie Soares Tribute: RI Ambassador of Jazz” on the famous local jazz pianist who was my uncle.) 

Besides Prophet, I discovered an enslaved RIer named Sylvia Torrey and I began my ‘Silvy Tory Stories’ having her deliver lively historical narratives about Rhode Island. As ‘Silvy Tory,’ I presented at art exhibits curated by the Committee for the Commemoration and Study of Slavery in RI, one at URI Multi-Cultural Center and another at Center for Reconciliation. At the Southside Cultural Center Holiday Bazaar of 2018, my ‘Silvy Tory’ compared historical RI Yuletide enslavement duties to the present day empowerment of Kwanzaa. Silvy Tory also takes on the persona and deep voice of a historical RI Black Regiment soldier and delivers a lively poem on the induction of the Regiment.

In 2016, I first performed my bilingual (Cape Verdean) Kriolu/English poem “Kenha Ke Nos;” for the President of Cabo Verde Jorge Carlos De Almeida Fonseca, and later in 2018 in my first extended bilingual Cape Verdean poetry show at Southside Cultural Center, with Santos Spenser on guitar, vocals. 

My Board affiliations are as follows; Mt. Hope Learning Center for which I put bands in Billy Taylor Park, 2008, 2011—Zili Mizik, Carlos De Leon, Paul Williams, Johnny Miranda, Al De Andrade Dixieland. During that time, I served on the Board of RI Rhythm and Blues Preservation Society, founder musician Ed Coates, Ph.D., and created programs with them at Roots Café and elsewhere. I am the Board of Cape Verdean Museum Exhibit that has hosted one of my Cape Verdean presentations. With excess of work pending, I had to step down from the Refugee Dream Center.

DC: You recently received an award from the Providence mayor can you tell us about that?

SAS: On, February 12, 2019, the city honored me for my exhibit in their 2nd annual Black History Month Celebration and exhibit, “Pillars on Race: The Story of Race in Providence.” I was ecstatic. What a surprise! One citation was a State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations City of Providence Official Citation: “…In recognition of being honored for your commitment and dedication to the community at the 2nd annual Black History Month Celebration. The members of the City Council extend their very best wishes on this memorable occasion and express the hope for continued good fortune. Signed by Sabina Matos, Council President and ‘Sponsored’ and signed by Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris Deputy Majority Leader. The second is a: “Citizen Citation presented to Sylvia Ann Soares. I, Jorge O. Elorza, Mayor of the City of Providence, do hereby confer upon you this citation in recognition of all the tremendous work you do for our community in the City of Providence. An honor reflecting your visionary and creative work, as an educator and African-American Artist. I join the residents of Providence, friends, and family in congratulating you as one of the 2020 Black History month Honorees, wishing you the best in all your future endeavors.” 

Now, as Cape Verdean I do not claim to be African American. However, most official forms have no line for ‘Cape Verdean’ and even though my DNA is 51-54% European, I align with my African heritage, so on these forms I check off “African American” or “Black.” 

OK, how did I get into the exhibit? In January ‘20, City Archivist Caleb Horton contacted me about using a photo that he saw in a 2010 Projo article about my traveling illustrated oral history talk on International Longshoremen’s Association Local #1329. Titled “By the Sweat of Our Brow;” the project had been funded by RI Council for the Humanities in 2008. The photo Caleb saw was of former Local ILA #1329 President John ‘Jackie’ Lopez who was the father of Earl Lopez, who is presently of Providence Mayor’s Security. When I informed Caleb of the numerous images loaned by families, that accompanied my talk, he invited me to join their 2020 Black History Month Exhibit in Providence City Hall. My exhibit, located just outside the Council Chambers, contained images and bio blurbs of ILA #1329 founders Manuel Q. Ledo and John F. Lopez and noted longshoremen and veterans, some who had additional jobs. Images included Arthur S. Soares (my father) who served as President for 16 years between 1954-1974; Matthew Bento, Business Agent; Sidney Lima, RI’s first Black fireman who rose to Lieutenant. Displayed in the exhibit and present for the opening was 96 year old retired longshoreman Avelino ‘Chapette’ Rose, RI’s first Black processing sheriff. The exhibit was to run a month, but City Hall closed due to COVID-19. 

DC: I know you have read some poetry over the years. Can you tell us the importance of poetry in society?

SAS: People are drawn to and respond to aesthetics. New brain imaging technology is bridging the gap between art and science. As for music, technology has shown that music lights up the entire brain. It is healthy for the brain, the psyche and great for the immune system. Poetry, which is musical word weaving is right behind that. Technology has shown that poetry, versus prose, is like music to the brain. Technology found evidence that poetry activates brain areas that have been linked to introspection. It gets you thinking. Combining poetry with music you are speaking the soul and the intellect. Poetry an exquisite effective tool for education, for effecting beneficial social change, for supporting justice, promoting the environment, for storytelling and fun, and for healing.

DC: Is there anything you can say to the youth of today?

SAS: Discover who you are. Others may reflect their opinion of you or advise you, but allow no one to define you. Humans are basically similar, but since the beginning of time to the end of time, there never has been and never will be another human exactly like you. See how beautiful you are? You belong here on this planet. You were born with the means to discover your particular talents and mission(s). Continuously investigate your talents. Fame is not a goal. Self discovery and honorable evolution brings the ultimate prize. People become famous because it’s their destiny, not because of what they do. However, what they do along the way and on arrival is the significant lesson. Respect the difference in others. Never hurt anyone and never allow anyone to hurt you. Utilize compassion wisely. Find the safe way to help others in need, especially of psychological healing. You have the permission to point them to pertinent organizations. This is the best help you can offer. In these situations, you are not seen as an authority, and feeling the guilt or need to change their behavior may be to your detriment. Forgiving does not set you free. Forgiving may remove from the perpetrator the onus of changing. Saying, “I am sorry you have been through this, but I know that you can change and do better,” is more effective for both parties, for you are encouraging them to evolve. There is truly more to you than meets the eye. Move out of your comfort zone, go the distance. Don’t run from the difficulty. It’s in the difficulty that lies the opportunity. Stay well informed on local and global matters. Learn what came before you, what influenced your present situation and thoughts. Observe history and your closest influences. Allow your emotions to flourish, yet learn to be objective. Let not emotion be your reasoning. Yes, exercise caution, but find the joy in your heart and let it shine. You will inspire others. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” If it’s knowable you can discover it.

DC: COVID has affected all of our lives. How are you adjusting?

SAS: I am grateful to have my usual minimal needs met. I intend to remain truly socially distanced until January. I’m close to 79 with no health problems, no meds, I am avoiding public transportation, so I walk everywhere. My naturopath, Dr. Joann, takes good care of me physically and spiritually. I am used to sheltering-in developing my researched public projects. Trips to libraries and historical societies can wait. There is loads of internet info available. Of eclectic propensity, I am enjoying diverse online journeys from the arts to science, and watching far more documentaries. Doing some reading. Zoom meetings are awesome and I hope they continue. My family is fine. Yet, deeply saddening are the deaths local and worldwide, and the financial devastation. Sadly, some will always ignore advice, ignore reality. Ironically, after the police murder of George Floyd, due to unemployment caused by the pandemic, we witnessed enormous support in the massive outpouring of peaceful protesters of all ethnicity. 

DC: What works can we look forward to in the future?

SAS: Much of my past work can be found by Googling my name or on YouTube or at Brown University Media Lab. My recent project funded by RISCA and Arts Culture and Tourism, slated for May 2020, was postponed due to COVID. In it, I use the name ‘Nha Silbanha.’ I was named for my maternal grandmother whose name was ‘Sylvania,’ hence my first name is ‘Sylvia Ann.’ However the Kriolu pronunciation excludes the ‘v.’ Cabo Verde (official name) was started by the Portuguese Slave Trade. The African language had no ‘v’ so I knew my grandmother as ‘Nha(our) Silbanhia.’ (phonetic spelling) I narrate bilingually the origin of Cabo Verde in an opening spoken word poem, and tell stories of Cape Verdean immigration to RI, our culture and RI Cape Verdean leaders. It includes a live Kriolu band some of who have played with Cesaria Evora, and a huge slide show of RI Cape Verdeans of note. It is complete and will be done. Future holds more Cape Verdean projects with music. More ‘Silvy Tory’ and Nancy Elizabeth Prophet as needed. A few other ideas on injustice and dramatizing RI history are floating around between my ears. I may actually try to get into some plays. Being in plays certainly a lot easier than researching, constructing a program and composing text. Still, this brain keeps babbling…….. 

DC: Can you share with us something that isn’t well known about you?

SAS: You mean, besides how gorgeous and talented I am! 1) I love you all and wish you health and success. 2) I am exalted in nature especially suspended in the cool of the ocean. 3) I keep no secrets, only yours. 4) I have never been engaged married or given birth — in any order. The world is my family. I hold the world in my solar plexus. 5) I have studied astrology, metaphysics and comparative religions, but Buddhist philosophy resonates best with me. 6) Besides art, I am ever curious about everything, world history and cultures, science, archeology, the cosmos and on and on. 7) My work is fueled with the sanctity of justice for humanity and nature. 

Okay, here’s some acting work you don’t know: In 1965, I toured in a musical revue to all the Service Men’s Clubs in Germany and returned to DC joining Actors Equity as an initial member of  the Garrick Players. In the late ’60s, I joined the New York Black Theatre Movement. My first off Broadway show was in the great Woodie King, Jr.’s A Black Quartet originating the role of ‘The Madame’ in Gentleman Caller. I worked at the Public Theater with founder Joe Papp in Richard Wesley’s Black Terror a play of Black revolution. I performed Sonia Sanchez’ Sister Son/ji in Negro Ensemble Company’s NEC workshop. Major regional theatres included McCarter at Princeton, Cincinnati Playhouse, Ford’s Theater in DC where Lincoln was shot (every performance we could see from the stage the box where he was shot). There was LA’s Mark Taper Forum, LA Shakespeare Festival. National tours included Charles Gordone’s 1st Black Pulitzer Prize play, No Place to Be Somebody and the NEC’s Tony Award play River Niger. While in LA, I guest appeared in scenes with the stars of Kojak, Baretta, Doctor’s Hospital, Nancy, Good Times, Delvecchio, Police Story, The Rookies. Back in RI, I played ‘Tituba’ in the 1984 PBS American Playhouse mini series Three Sovereigns for Sarah about the Salem witch trials. In 1989, with the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project, I helped build two small cinder block schoolhouses outside the Niquinohomo, Nicaragua, the birthplace of the revolutionary Augusto Sandino. At that time, I gave up an apartment to become Resident Volunteer Staff at Amos House for two years before returning to school at 51 years old. 

DC: How has RI culture changed over the years?

SAS: I will address minimally a large question. I’ll let you compare. Even after slavery was abolished in RI in 1843, racist laws persist. Redlining was abolished in the US in 1968, but discrimination in housing still exists. After RI slavery was abolished, freed people from other areas in Rhode Island were denied ‘legal settlement’ in Providence. Without owning land, men could not vote. Women could not vote. Blacks, Natives, Mulattoes had to step off the boardwalks (the ‘sidewalks’ then) to allow whites to pass. Gathering in public was considered ‘loitering’ and punished. There were 9pm curfews. Dancing and playing music in their own homes was punishable. Use of alcohol was curbed. Constant overbearing police presence in their communities. If a woman owned a boarding house, it was automatically targeted for prostitution. Equality in RI has been a gradual process and still evolving. 

DC: Do you think it’s been a positive change or negative? If so explain. 

SAS: US has higher percentage of incarcerated in the world. The highest number are Black. This is the same for Rhode Island. Google the facts. As for acting, in 1962, I was one of the first members of Trinity. Because of my brown skin I was given a tiny role of a few words in “House of Bernarda Alba,” when my acting was as good, if not more skilled that some of the others who played the sisters. When Adrian Hall finally arrived that year he began total non-traditional casting, which has lasted since. I left RI from ‘65 until ’81. Since returning, I have witnessed a radical change from when I was young here in the ’50s and even ’60s. Retuning home, I availed myself of free education at CCRI and was awarded full scholarship to Brown, which by that time was hugely diverse. In my absence and continuing, there has been a gradual emergence of non-profits that support social needs and the arts. There are far more free and inclusive cultural events. Many humanitarian organizations have arisen. There is now a wider diversity of ethnicity contributing to RI’s rich cultural family. Still, we must alter generational programming within cultural groups. More need to know that programs at institutions of higher learning, museums and libraries are open to the public. All are not made aware of opportunities and their right to attend or apply for free education. Reaching into neighborhoods and minds of disenfranchised is a challenge calling for further development. For every positive humanitarian step, there are visible and covert counter measures, countrywide and globally. 

DC: When did you fall in love with poetry?

SAS: My first recollection of poetry was at Hope High in 1954. They were all the white classical poets that I don’t need to mention. I recall writing little pieces. My father was very strict and I was constantly on punishment for maybe getting one ‘C’ or mispronouncing words or something. Writing poetry was so much fun, I was afraid to get caught, so I threw them all away. I wrote some play scenarios and threw them away. At 25, I went out into the world not realizing that I had such very low self esteem but I manage to get work in professional theatre and television. Still, I was not able to write for years. I didn’t know I had blocked certain aspects of my psyche. I wrote occasional scenarios but threw them away. That may be normal for discerning artists, but I truly felt inadequate. Then, in the late ’70s I attended a workshop in the hills south of LA and in that safe, encouraging environment I wrote pieces that I still have, some edited, etc. I returned to Providence in ’81 and eventually learned that it is possible to rise out of limitations and recapture the self. Believe it!

Generally, a few highlights of my experience with poetry went as follows. Over the years, I have read free for local human interest organizations and protest poetry of other writers at activist events. It wasn’t until I was at Brown in ’93 and taking a class with Elmo Terry-Morgan that I was empowered to venture my own pieces. I performed them at events, such as his Mama Etta’s Chittlin’ Circuit shows, or a benefit for Leonard Peltier or other cultural events. At Brown, I began and have performed, and still editing a huge poem about my rape at 13 years old by several neighborhood boys. Having rescued myself psychologically, I hope the piece will alleviate that trauma from others and encourage the assaulted to come forth and reclaim themselves. 

Later, in my 2003 play on slavery in Rhode island, I wrote a huge spoken word piece on the 1824 Hardscrabble Riot, a white against Black riot in the Black hamlet of Hardscrabble, located near the RI State House, before the State House was built. That poem was publicly read a few times. Then, in 2004, at the National Black Agenda Convention convened by Senator Bill Owens at Roxbury College, I performed one of my poems on slavery in Rhode Island preceding the main talk by Reverend Louis Farrakhan. I have read poems of refugees for the Refugee Dream Center’s Annual International Refugee Day in Providence. In 2017, I enjoyed reading Sonia Sanchez, Joy Harjo and other activist works in Joyce Katzberg’s Pete Seeger’s Birthday Celebration at Lily Pads. My last reading was in 2019 at Listening Tree Coop in Chepachet “Politics of the Moment” where I read as usual poems on anti-war, racism, justice, immigration, environment, poems by classic & modern poets, and one of my own, which is included here. I have fewer poems than I should have. I have lots of notes, but one never stops evolving in the understanding of effective word weaving, so I now find it easier to express succinctly. 

I must add that since I am primarily an actress, SAG_AFTRA and Equity, which adds drama to my poetry readings, and therefore, I must tell you when I became aware of acting. 

I fell in love with acting around 1949 in a French convent boarding school in Woonsocket, no longer there. Couvent de Jesus Marie—St. Clare’s school. At nine years old, in my first semester there, for the Christmas play, I played the piano, the marimba, the glockenspiel. I also played a little African boy who visits the newborn baby Jesus and delivered a monologue in French. Then, in 1954, when I was 13, I saw a movie Carmen Jones. Starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, it is a sensational Black version of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Watching them act, I thought, “I can do that.” Later, interesting note on my 4th grade costume as the African boy that I played in that boarding school Christmas show: a black beret, a pea coat and red plaid slacks. In the 1972 on a national tour of the Negro Ensemble Company’s Tony winning play River Niger, I played ‘Gail,’ the girl in the revolutionary gang. I wore a black beret, a pea coat and red plaid slacks! 

Collective Creativity: An interview with Contessa Brown

Cafe S.O.U.L is an open mic night created by the incomparable Contessa Brown and Janne’t Brown, affectionately known as Momma Brown. I recently sat down with Contessa Brown to talk about Cafe S.O.U.L. and its importance in the community.   

Damont Combs (Motif): For those who don’t know, what is Cafe S.O.U.L.? 

Contessa Brown: Cafe S.O.U.L. is a portal of collective creativity, integrating, healing, education, sanctuary, music, art, and inter-connectivity. It creates the experiences of the spirit of giving continually through the multicultural expressions of artists through many mediums of art (eg, spoken word, authors, motivation speakers,  business owners/entrepreneurs etc.). We classify this as a multi-dimensional platform to allow people to creatively express their individuality, and continue to pursue their living dream. Allowing the expression of one’s passion, using many diverse art forms as tools, allows one to continue the spirit of giving and each voice to be heard. We present commerce: Cafe S.O.U.L. as a vehicle for insight and for action in the aid of creating a better world.

DC: How has Cafe S.O.U.L. lasted more than 10 years as an open mic and therapeutic outlet for artist?

CB: First and foremost, it is a vision and assignment given from God. I am a firm believer that anything that you do for the Lord and His Kingdom will last.  Cafe S.O.U.L. was birthed out of a need to provide a safe space for persons of all walks of life to come and express themselves, come to share their gifts, talents, businesses, testimonies, etc. You name it! Because of our genuine service in the community, people continue to come and support Cafe S.O.U.L. As they say, word of mouth spreads fast. It is the experience that people remember. Our goal is to leave an indelible mark on each soul that encounters our healing and expressive space.

DC: How has Cafe S.O.U.L. expanded beyond being just an open mic?

CB: Over the years, we have seen Cafe S.O.U.L. become a birthing ground of visions, dreams and businesses from published authors and business owners to amazing collaborations between creative and professional people. We also noticed that certain nights would be an intimate healing session for an individual or individuals. Once I noticed this trend, this urged me to want to take it a step further and seek a degree in holistic clinical mental health counseling. The next goal is to have a private practice under the umbrella of Cafe S.O.U.L.  

DC: Let’s talk about you Contessa. Can you tell me more about yourself?

CB: Well where do I began? I am a renaissance woman who wears a lot of hats. I have passion for people and a desire to see people become the best version of themselves. I am a motivational speaker, spoken word artist, business owner and soon-to-be-published author. I also enjoy hosting poetry expression and writing workshops as well as personal branding and holistic healing workshops. I am a very self-motivated person and I just want to achieve all God has purposed for me as well as become all that God desires me to be. I love LOVE. My favorite holiday is Valentine’s Day and my favorite color is red — for love and passion. I enjoy nature; my favorite park is India Point Park. I enjoy writing; I have a lot of journals. I also recently started painting again as a way to heal, express and relax.  

DC: What inspires you? 

CB: God. I know it seems simple, yet it is really Him that gives me the strength to keep going even when I do not feel like going. Even when things do not appear/seem to be going in the direction He has spoken to me. I hold on to those words, I write them down and I reflect on those words in hard times. Also, my mom. She has been my strength through the ups and downs in many aspects of my life — personally and professionally.  

DC: I know that you’re deeply rooted in your love of God and have overcome some obstacles in the church. Can you tell me more about that?

CB: Well, I had to go through a lot of healing. I endured church hurt and had to totally rely on God. People can disappoint you no matter what title they may hold. That is why is it important not to put them on pedestals and realize they too are fallible and make mistakes. I had to learn that in my walk with God. This journey I have scribed in a book that will be released in 2021. A few scriptures to hold onto while going through trials in this Christian walk are:

  • To whom much is given, much is required. Luke 12:48
  • I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13
  • Work with excellence as though working for God and not for man. As man will certainly disappoint you Colossians 3:23

DC: Have you found it hard in this industry to be treated equal to your male counterparts?

CB: Honestly, I never noticed in it the business entrepreneur sector. I feel what God has for me is for me and who I am meant to reach I shall reach. We all have our own lanes and we each do it uniquely and differently. Now I know in corporate America, being a Black woman statistically we get paid less. But I don’t pay it no mind. I get what is mine and what is due to me, 100 times fold.  

DC: You had a poem published in Motif last month that really speaks to current society. What does that poem mean to you? 

CB: “Dear Black Brotha Part Deux” is a reflective and healing piece. I originally wrote a poem back in 2017 titled “Dear Black Brotha,” and it was my expression about my experience with dating Black men. It was valid and it was raw. Throughout the past few years, I have gone through a healing journey and come to see my Black brothas from a different lens. I started to see how generation patterns and upbringing/ surrounding environment(s) can impact how they view and treat woman — respectfully and/or disrespectfully. I also began to see the many Black men who love and respect the women in their lives, who are faithful and take care of their kids. I feel like when we lean in with curiosity and truly take a moment to learn new perspectives, the filters in our lens begin to change and widen.  We are able to see more peripherally. That is what happened with me during my healing process with being hurt by both church and by Black men.

DC: Any messages you want to relay to the youth of today?

CB: Be you and never compare yourself to anyone. Your destiny and your path are unique to you. I don’t care about what your family’s history may have been — good or bad — your destiny is your destiny. Surround yourself with like-minded people now. Friends will come and go. Not everyone is going to like you or get along with you and that is okay. Just be respectful and stay focused on what you are called to do. Don’t strive for the likes on your social media pages. Strive to make an impact within your community and society that will have a long-term effect that will last longer than the 24-hour stories posted in your Instagram or Facebook pages.   

DC: What is next for Cafe S.O.U.L?

CB: The next step is to own our own commercial building that will house my private practice, lounge and my mom’s bistro all under the Brand of Cafe S.O.U.L. I am excited for what is to come next!

DC: When did you fall in love with poetry?

CB: Well, I have been writing in journals since I was young. First starting with my mom encouraging me to always write down any complex words I didn’t understand in a notebook. She also encouraged me to express my emotions in a diary. I then come to learn about writing poetry in high school.  It wasn’t until I met my boy Yunus Quddus back in the early 2000s that I was introduced to the whole phenomenon of spoken word poetry. I recall going to my first open mic ever at Black Rep and being enamored by the word play of the lyricists on stage. I attempted my first slam at AS220 and kind of bombed. But I kept learning from the greats like Christopher Johnson, Yunus, Lawrence Nunes, Marlon Carey, Rudy Rudacious and Ryk McIntyre. I then started to create my own flow and style, incorporating song and poetry. I gained confidence enough to perform spoken word at various open mics around the New England area and developed a business from the love of poetry expression. The rest is history on a continuum. 

Cinderella: Unauthorized

The cross-dressing prince knocked on the cottage door

intent on finding the other foot of the splendid slipper

it felt so good on his foot

and showed off his pedicure ever so nicely

he just had to have them both even if he had to beg for them

She opened the door

he fell to his knees grabbed her hand and kissed it

“pardon me my lady but will you please—“

“Why of course I will!” she squealed

She ran to her bedroom to retrieve the other slipper

and the rest of few belongings

the prince winked at his footmen

“that was easy enough”

he could imagine his footsies

nice and snug inside the scrumptious slippers

he thought perhaps

he would give the peasant girl

a few pieces of gold for her trouble

“Goodbye you old hags! I’m moving out!”

She shouted as she came toward him “I’m gonna marry me a prince!”

The Prince’s face fell

The footmen snickered

vainly he tried to squeak an appeal “B-but”

“No buts about it buster!” she snapped.

“…and give me my other shoe.

You’re getting fingerprints all over it!”

(and they lived happily ever after, after all?)

Making Magic: An interview with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Mixed Magic Theatre is a non-profit organization in Pawtucket with a mission to create more literate and arts-active communities. Mixed Magic often combines expressive artistic forms, such as poetry, acting, singing, dancing through plays and open mic. I recently spoke with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and we delved into the importance of artistic expression, discussed what’s happening in today’s society and talked about the importance of understanding language and the craft and inner workings of Mixed Magic.  

Mr. Orange Live: I’d like to start this interview by thanking you for all that you have done for this community! I know you personally and have shared the stage with you a few times, but for those who don’t know you and Mixed Magic Theatre, can you give a brief introduction? 

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley: I have been a theater artist for almost 50 years. Apart from being an actor, director, playwright, composer and teacher, I am also co-founder and past artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre

MO: How does Mixed Magic Theatre stay relevant and crucial in these changing times? 

RP: We stay relevant by staying focused on our mission “to build more literate and arts-active communities by presenting a diversity of ideas and images on stage.” We also stay committed to developing and presenting African-American talent.

MO: What were the hardest challenges you’ve faced and overcome as a nonprofit?

RP: Lack of funding resources and no dependable feeder system for theater artists, administrators and technicians.  

MO: You’re so amazingly talented. You’re a singer, poet, author and more. Can you talk more about your own work?  

RP: I think of myself as a natural artist in the sense that as an actor, writer or composer, I don’t worry about rules our conventions as much as I seek to tell the truth.

MO: Thinking about George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, what do you think about what is happening? How we can rise as a community and people?

RP: More now than ever we have to prepare ourselves for the loud, demanding and dangerous road that will lead to real and lasting change. We have to make a place for everybody to protest in their own way.

MO: What do you want to pass on to the next generation?

RP: The belief that you are entitled to everything the world has to offer. To prepare themselves and be ready to manage the benefits of committed work and an unleashed imagination.

MO: How has Mixed Magic Theatre adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic?

RP: We began early in the pandemic to prepare for a new and better future.

MO: When social distancing ends, what can we look forward to from  Mixed Magic Theatre?

RP: A new and exciting brand of performance events celebrating the human experience. We will not delve into spectacle as much as not be afraid to be spectacular.

MO: Let’s talk about poetry and acting. Some of the best poets I know also are some of the best actors I know. How would you explain this?

RP: Poetry and acting both demand that you put a value on language — what you say, how you say it and what you mean.

MO: Do you believe poets are the voice of the community and why?

RP: All artists must be voices for and in the community.

MO: When did you fall in love with theater and poetry?

RP: Age 15 — the first time I stepped on stage.

Dear Black Brotha: Part Deux

For the longest time

I was not your ally

Because of a lie of anotha brotha

You are you brother’s keeper,

But, not his keeper of debts and wrongdoing

I apologize for painting you with

Broad paint brushes

Rather taking the time to sketch your mind

And heart

Rather than lean in closer

I closed my heart

How can I not love you?

That is like saying I don’t love me.

Projecting my pain and turning into

Great disdain

Rather than showing you another way 

You saw the remnant of an angry black woman

Belittled, emotionally

Beaten, mentally

You saw me before the balm of healing

On my heart

On my eyes

Now, I see you

I really see you

Where normally would ask for an apology

For the symptomology you express

Due to life’s indiscretions

A.K.A Hard Knock Life Lesson

Now this is not to excuse behavior

But, I now understand that these are

Just some of the symptoms to the deck of cards life has dealt you

You can’t




Or even have some damn Skittles!!

BMW currently stands for



Worn down

They want you down

We want you up

So you can remain a 

Black Man


The only arrest we want to see is someone to rapture and care for your hearts

Love you into healing

So, not only does Black Lives Matter





How can I continue to breathe?

Without saying,

Dear Black Brotha,

I LOVE you.

All Lives Matter

All Lives
don’t get found
on four different occasions
from trees
in 2020 America
and ruled a suicide

All Lives
don’t utter the words
I can’t breathe
over their last breath
while in police custody 

All Lives
are not handcuffed
by blue uniforms
and shot
execution style
in front of witnesses 

All Lives
are not
shot dead
while sleeping
in their car 

All Lives
are not killed
for taking shortcuts home
with a sandwich
or an iced tea
and a bag of candy 

All Lives
are not taken alive
in police cars
or wagons
and arrive at police stations
with broken bones
black eyes

All Lives
are not shot in the back
while running from police
after being pulled over
and seeing the officer
break his tail light
after he is shot dead
the officer
places a spare pistol
next to his dead body
it was all
caught on camera 

All Lives
are not shot
for refusing to turn down the music 

All Lives
are not shot
on camera
for walking away from a police officer 

All Lives
do not have to remain
two hands
imprinting the shape of the steering wheel
in palms
after witnessing
their fiancé
shot dead
for following the instructions
of a police officer
of Black skin 

All Lives
are not toddlers
don’t cry momma
from the back seat
all that real life
and death trauma
is taking place 

All Lives
Do not get murdered
while praying
in Baptist churches

All Lives
don’t witness the murderer
in custody
enjoying a fast food burger
before going to jail 

These are just the deaths 

If I mentioned
all the injustices
All Lives
do not have to suffer
in America
by historic example
this list would be
at the very least
157 years long 

All Lives Don’t Matter
Black Lives Matter


When it happened
there was no Negro
atop of blazing saddle
preceded by smoking dust clouds
from burnt trail.
The wind carried no screams of the decree.

The war had been over three years.
I was about seventeen
when freedoms fingers
tugged my ear.

In droves they wandered streets
dancing and singing
“Weeze FREE now,”
but the day
was hollow as
Victory’s bloodied head
resting upon shoulder of Future unsure.

I remember walking to window
“What is this commotion?”

Yankee Me
never knew the story
of how word traveled
at a snail’s pace
to smash shackles off ankles
of trained shuffling feet.

Northern city slicker me
never heard of how
hands bound by fields
formed wings for hearts
that couldn’t pick a sweeter moment
to take flight
than the one that came
not soon enough.

When it happened
I had been amongst them
at least two months
with no knowledge why
Black Folk took pride in this day.

Where was our Patriot Paul
Revered for his historic ride
rallying minutes for men
who wish to be free.

Where was our National Holiday
educating me of
the aesthetics of this event?

Where was the monument
engraving glory in generations to come?

And why did it take so long to come?
Freedom must be a fickle wench.
Grant the pleasures of her passion
at her leisure.
No matter how you love her
she refuses to come.

There must have been hundreds of them
parting plantations
like black river through green pastures
But where was our Moses?

My mind
a mule
broken under the weight of promises
couldn’t carry a single straw of comprehension
of this day.

My thoughts
cast upon heads of
second class citizens
whose locs grew
for bloodshed to key.

Couldn’t fathom the odyssey of pharaohs
returning home to a
forty acre dreamscape.
No longer chattel to masters,
but still shared the crops of sleep.

It would take over a century from the day
for the day
that twenty-eight days would be granted
for education of my people’s history.
It would take over two times forty centuries
of taking knowledge for technology
to accurately document my people’s misery.

And no matter
how much my insides wanted to jig with them
celebrating the glory of the coming of the word

I still saw
July forth panics
where the tradition of picking a nigger for lynching
caused strange fruit to swing
from the poplar tree.

From the late 1700s
to the early 1960s
I still envisioned water hoses
marching men and women
and dogs with a taste for darkie meat
ripping the flesh of Negro children.

I still had premonitions
of sixty-two licks from night sticks and kicks per minute
inflicted by overseers upon Blackman head and chest
I still heard forty shots of hot lead
searing through a twenty two year old student body
warning what’s to happen if the system
was put to test.

No matter
how much my insides wanted to jig with them,
the weight of possessing skin color in this country
made it hard for me to move feet.

When it happened
there was no Negro
atop of blazing saddle
preceded by smoking dust clouds
from burnt trail.
The wind carried no screams of the decree.

When it happened
on that June nineteenth,
no one believed it had happened
cause the masters
didn’t want me to know
I was free.

I’m not supposed to see
the ghost,
but they peek at me
from floating fragments
of dimensions. 

And I can see them. 

Like I’m not supposed to notice
red tail hawks
perched upon highway lamp post
in the form of Sankofa 

Like the message doesn’t exist.
Like my next move won’t matter.
Like my America is not killing black boys
and letting white men
walk away with murder. 

Like I’m not supposed to speak
upon the ghost I see
peeking at me
from floating fragments
of dimensions.

Like blue uniforms
flashing fourth of July
behind me
isn’t a profile. 

Like race is not a factor
when white men
capitulate to the urge
to create ghost.

Like anyone who speaks about beings
other than God
or angels
is crazy. 

Like it’s ok
to make angels
out of black boys. 

Like calling white men
is racist. 

Like race is not a factor
in the murder trial. 

Like it’s my fault
I can see ghost
like red tail hawks
perched atop highway lamp post
in the form of Sankofa.

Like I’m not supposed to see the message
peeking at me
like ghost
through floating fragments
of dimensions
like a mirror
shattered then scattered
across air.

Like I know my next move matters
when uniforms
Fourth of July America behind me. 

Like I know not all white men are devils.
Just the ones making angels
out of black boys
and walking away with murder. 

Like I’m not supposed to relay the message.
Like the message doesn’t exist.
Like I’m not all broken hero
of shattered Heru.
No Jonah.
Just Geppetto
in the belly of the ghetto. 

Like ghosts of murdered black boys
peeking at griots
through floating fractures
of shattered dimensions.

Griots like Poets
who should be more like prophets.
Like Jonah.
Not Geppetto
in the belly of the ghetto. 

But prophets
seek profits
and the message gets distorted. 

Shattered like pieces of mirror
scattered through air
shattered ghost of broken toys
wanting to be real boys.

The ghost speak to me.
Flying on bikes
like angels
to mother’s kisses
buttermilk biscuits
and school dances .

Ghost speak to me.
of flying like angels
in b ball pick up
and puppy love machismo. 

toss soul
in the universe
to magic penny
wish on me
to become 

A man. 

Not a boy
with dreams
of flying. 

like I could be them.
Like my next move doesn’t matter.
Like I’m not supposed to see the message
God graffittied on blue sky.
And white cloud
in red tail hawk
perched upon highway lamp post
in the form of Sankofa. 

That white men
with the urge
to make ghost
make black bodies
fly like angels. 

that my next move matters
because America
is flashing fourth of July
in rear view mirror. 

Eyes full of ghost.
Life is unattainable
for black boys
better born angels.

America, Noun

Black Lives Matter rally in Providence, June 5, 2020; photo credit: Small Frye Photography


A-M-E-R-I-C-A, America 


From the Italian Amerigo 

which itself is from the German Amalric or Heimrich 

meaning “work ruler” or “home ruler”



From the English America 

meaning conflict 

    conflict with England 

      with Spain 

      with Mexico  

      with France  

      with Africa  

      with natives 

      with itself 



From the American 

meaning equality 


    liberty & justice for all 

      for all white male landowners 

Not women 

Not people of color 

Not the homeless 

Just white 





From the human 

meaning change 

    change the way we think 

    the way we rule 

    the way we represent 

    the way we live 

    the way we all live 



meaning potential 

    potential achievement 

                potential growth 

    potential to be the best possible version of you 



      the best possible version of you 


where is the best possible version of you?

when will you reach your potential?

when will you grow?

when will you change?

when will you achieve liberty & justice for all?

when will the conflict end?

when will you stop fighting with yourself?

            with the world?

            with The Universe?

when will you live & let live? 

when will you love thy neighbor?

when will you realize that anyone 

              that everyone can be an American?

when will you know 

what America means?


They say

If it’s not on Facebook
It didn’t happen
Even though I am not seeing it
I’m pretty sure it’s happening

We keep saying
Never again
Until the next hash tag
Digitally memorializes
The next Black name
By blue bullets

I can’t watch another video
We shouldn’t have to hash tag
Another father
Hashtag daughter
Hashtag love one

And they don’t get it
They say shit like
What was he doing for the police to shoot him
Why was she so mouthy?
Black on Black crime starts young
Just co-operate with the police
and you won’t have a problem

It used to be
every 28 hours
but now
They can’t even wait a full day
And I shouldn’t have to wake
To another snuff flick
On Facebook
To prove it’s happening

There is nothing we can do
To change
Being born with black skin
In America

Our terrorist
Don’t pray to a foreign god
Five times a day

We don’t see something
Say something
Every time someone speaks
At a airport

Our terrorist
Don’t believe
Forty virgins wait for them
In heaven
For every Black life taken

Never again
To us
Is like Amazing Grace
A song
Written by a slave trader
We try to find solace
In reclaiming its meaning
For ourselves
But has as much usefulness
As Nazi forgiveness
During the Jewish Holocaust

The holy cost of equality
Is so sacred
Like forgiveness
It’s only given
To brothers
And sons who serve and protect
Blue lives white covenant

But I have a daughter
Aren’t I a father too
Am I not MaeDorothy’s son
Michelle and Nicole’s brother?
Do I not deserve equality
Like forgiveness
For living while Black
In a country where I can’t breathe

When a baby is choking
They tell the baby
Put your hands up
Over your head
To open the airways
So the baby can breathe
I wonder
If #EricGarner’s mom
Just put your hands up
And breathe
Before he breathed
His last

It’s like they train to kill us


any attempt
To defend ourselves
Is an act of war


It’s on Facebook
It’s on Twitter
It’s all over YouTube
It’s real
you can Google it
I want to call this police porn snuff flicks
They have to be getting off on this
They must have a running bet
Who can have the best
Amateur video taken
winner gets
GoFundMe’s for their defense
Ranging in hundred thousand rewards

After the shooting
Of seven Dallas police officers
Ex-representative Joe Walsh
Declared war
On President Obama
And the Black Lives Matter Movement

Dear Ex Congressman
There are no hash tags
Before those police officers’ names
No makeshift memorials
Where those officers were slain
No digital media press play icons
For us to view
Over and over
Desensitizing Americans
To gun violence against police
Like it is for gun violence perpetrated by police
Killing unarmed Americans

If it is now war
Then I guess
The constant and continual
Murder of People of color
Is a Holocaust
Redlining practices
Chunked out American concentration camps
and instead of sewing stars on our lapels
we simply just had to be born

No gas showers or
brick oven human roasting rooms
just brass encased hot lead handcuffed baths
in asphalt and concrete blood pools

It’s no wonder
State police uniforms
Look more like SS than US
I mean
Look more like Nazi
Than us

Dear America
If I am pro something
I am not against something else
I shouldn’t have to choose
Between the police
And the people
The police are sworn to protect

This is not a Black problem
This is an American problem
I don’t want a hash tag
In front of my name
Just because of my skin color
And don’t tell me
All lives matter
Because if all lives mattered
Then Black Lives Matter wouldn’t exist

TheNcredibull, 2014

Numinous materfamilias

She has the silent strength of hope, like in a hurricane

The quiet voice that guides your fears from reality

The kind of strength that stretches bends and twists like two pieces of hair that never break

Bonds that never sever but connect muscle tissue and brown skin

Brown skin that bears the weight of Queendom

She loves beyond the scopes of her own creations

Yearns to be entangled with the unconditional

So she offers all crown and glory, gut and testimony

For her kingdom

All air for her heirs

Even if It means she suffocates in silence

Her words of advice may have fell on deaf ears

But she will not release the weight of responsibility no matter the heaving.

Heavy is the light of her glow

Praise, is the prism of her reflection

She is the original image of what it means

And what it takes to be an artist

A queen, befitting her throne

A symbol of what empowerment looks like

She is the perfect cast to mold

The perfect role to model

What I mean to say is…

If I could use one word to describe her — magnificent

One word that tried to destroy her — cancer

One word that ensued — battle

Your battle gives hope! 

There are battles scars

Where scar tissues are reminiscent of a heavy heart

Like your treasure chest has been through a few things.

A few things to note — hope at a bar in an 8 second conversation

The facts of life…is unexpected

About the facts of life — you lost your hair…

But not your crown, warrior still proud, my divine lady.

Everyone will know not the battle that waged

Under your skin but remember
The poet!!! Your personality!!! The character!!! Of a queen

Who sits on her throne making those who pass by aware of the happiness life has to offer

So never give up! We depend on you! This cancer you speak of?

It only affects your mortal frame, showing us how human you are.

Reminding us that Life is short, that the battles are long and to win will come at a great cost

But you have learned its secrets… Family –- stands by your love — surrounds you, and its value — is immeasurable

2day I have learned one thing — it wasn’t that you had cancer; it was the strength you possess,

The kind of woman you are — QUEEN and no single cell or entity can rip that from your breast

So If I could use one word that describes your outcome with cancer — Conqueror 

For you will always be more than a survivor … but a Conqueror  

I dedicate this poem to my poetry sister Marie Michaelle Saintil. Since the first time I met her at her book signing, we supported each other with love, poetry and dedication to the arts. It was always a blessing for me when we got together and I will continue to carry her legacy in the arts forward. I want to thank her for living her truth, sharing her life’s work and changing so many lives along the way — including mine. I’ve had the honor of sharing this poem with her live and I hope it encourages all those who face similar circumstances.

“For you will always be more than a survivor, but a conqueror”