Photo: Mavis Staples by Bryan Ledgard through Wikimedia Commons.
Labor Day often feels like the end of summer: Kids are back in school, beach days dwindle, and pumpkin spice lattes reappear on coffee shop menus. This year, though, we can stretch summer at least one more weekend, through September 8-10, with the return of PVDFest. Organized by the Office of Mayor Brett Smiley, Providence’s Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism, and FirstWorks, PVDFest is back for its seventh year. While it will look different than previous festivals, it is sure to be a summer send-off to remember.
PVDFest has served as a free arts and cultural festival in Providence since its debut in 2015. It quickly became a hallmark on the city’s calendar, a celebratory summer kick-off that brought local and internationally acclaimed musicians and performance artists to the Creative Capital. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of people would gather in the streets to dance, drink, and discover the beauty of a transformed downtown.
COVID disrupted the pattern of PVDFest. Taking 2020 off, it came back in 2021, but the events were held throughout the summer, allowing leisurely attendance to mitigate possible COVID spread. Last year it returned to its former glory, drawing over 100,000 people to the DownCity/Kennedy Plaza area.
This year’s PVDFest, a collaboration between FirstWorks, WaterFire and a new mayoral team, is continuing to experiment with several significant changes in the hopes of establishing an easy-going vibe as in the early years. The biggest changes are a ban on open containers, a new location at the recently developed 195 District Park, the green space adjacent to the new pedestrian bridge along the river, and new timing in September instead of June.
Kicking off on the evening of Friday, September 8, this year’s festival runs through the afternoon of Sunday, September 10. This early fall scheduling invites attendance by university students, who will be in town, and it was developed through dialog with the PVD hospitality community and hotel owners, who were concerned about overcrowding in June and the proximity to PRIDEFest, the City’s biggest annual event.
The new District Park location further encourages participation by Providence’s robust student population and connects the festival directly with WaterFire, which will have a full lighting on Saturday.
“PVDFest has always involved experimentation. It’s one thing that’s characterized the festival since the beginning – innovating and inventing and reshaping,” says Kathleen Pletcher, executive director and founder of FirstWorks. “It’s been fascinating to consider the new space: What does this magnificent waterfront footprint say about our city?”
The musical headliner of PVDFest is legendary soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples. The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, whose career has spanned eight decades, will perform on Saturday night. Staples walked with Dr. King, performed at JFK’s funeral, and has become “One of the defining voices for peace and freedom,” says Pletcher, who “can’t wait to see her perform with a glorious background of the PVD skyline.”
“I look forward to witnessing a living legend grace Providence with her presence and performance on Saturday night,” agrees Joe Wilson Jr, Director of PVD’s Department of Art, Culture, Tourism.
Several notable artists from Providence round out the rest of this year’s musical line-up. Hitting the stage on Friday night is EhShawnee, the renowned salsa singer-songwriter who was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Rhode Island. Also on the docket for Friday night is PVDFest favorite Chachi Carvalho and the International Players. Carvalho’s work merges a host of different genres, creating a unique hip-hop blend that has made him a mainstay on the PVD scene and beyond. On Saturday, rapper Flawless will perform a set in the afternoon. Born and raised in Providence, Flawless broke into the mainstream as a finalist on Netflix’s 2019 competition Rhythm + Flow. PVDFest wraps up on Sunday with the Afrika Nyaga Drum & Dance Festival. Presented by Sidy Maiga in collaboration with the Providence Foundation, this event will feature Wunmi, Master Soumy, and the always-riveting Haus of Glitter Dance Company. In total, there will be six stages and hundreds of performers involved in the festivities.
Leaning into local talent more than in years past is a deliberate choice this year as well. “We don’t want to sound insular, but showing off what PVD has to offer is part of the point of the Fest. We’ve seen so many artists like EhShawnee and Chachi and Becky Bass evolve and grow over the years. There’s a history of artist development now, and helping them become involved in other events,” says Pletcher. “We try to bring the world here to see Providence artists, and we try to drive Providence artists out into the world.”
In true PVDFest fashion, art installations also serve as a prominent part of the event. This year, Rumford-based Pneuhaus, an innovative design studio that blends science with immersive sculpture, will showcase their piece Grove. This large-scale illuminated, inflatable piece mimics subterranean root systems used by trees to communicate (see “On the Cover,” page 3) – an echo to PVDFest’s mission of bringing people together.
“This year’s festival will look a little different, but it is somewhat poetic that we will gather around our river which has served as a crossroads and a source of life for this region for centuries. And though PVDFest is located around the river, what makes Providence our beloved creative capital is that our creative power rests throughout this incredible city,” says Wilson.
Jennifer M. Wilson has worked in Providence’s arts and humanities sector for over 12 years, including at the Rhode Island Historical Society, Trinity Rep, and Gallery Night Providence. Additional reporting by Mike Ryan.
Several PVDFest-related events located outside of the District Park footprint are also happening that same weekend. “Venture by foot in any direction and explore all of the happenings that lie just beyond our festival footprint,” suggests Joe Wilson Jr.:
The fourth annual Neurodiversity New Play Festival takes place September 7 – 9, presented by Spectrum Theatre Ensemble, a company of neurodiverse theater professionals. Performances will happen at three different locations: Alchemy, Mirabar, and Askew. Individual tickets and passes are available at stensemble.org.
Looking for guided tours during PVDFest? There will be two different options available.
On Saturday, Gallery Night Providence is conducting free, family-friendly, art-focused walking tours. The route includes a number of gallery spaces, as well as public art throughout the city. Visit gallerynight.org to reserve a spot.
If you’re interested in a blend of art and history, on both Saturday and Sunday, Stages of Freedom will offer two walking tours focused on 19th century couple Edward and Christiana Bannister, prominent members of New England’s African American social and political circles. Edward was a notable oil painter, while Christiana was an entrepreneur and hairdresser; both were abolitionists and activists. Visit stagesoffreedom.org for tickets.
These tours complement the events organized by the Bannister Community Art Project, a collaboration of community leaders and organizations to commemorate Edward Bannister’s life. Several events, artistic, social, and academic, are slated from Friday night through Sunday night, culminating with a parade that ends at the official unveiling of a permanent, life-size sculpture of Bannister. The piece, designed by local artist Gage Prentiss, will sit by Market Square. For schedule details, check-out providenceartclub.org/bannister-project.
While PVDFest is seeing significant changes this year, it is still holding to its core goal: bringing people together to celebrate Providence’s diverse, colorful, and bold commitment to its art, culture, and history.
We would love to hear from you comparing this year’s fest to those of recent years – let us know any time at email@example.com, and we might include your thoughts in our wrap-up coverage.