In Durham, a city purported to have a thriving arts community, there’s a conspicuous lack of small-scale spaces for local performers to share their art with the larger community. As one Durham musician, Randal Gilbert, notes: “There’s a lot going on in Durhamin people’s living rooms.”
At least one local group is trying to change this. Gilbert is the co-founder of the non-profit Durham Association for Downtown Arts, or DADA, a group of grassroots artists and promoters dedicated, according to its mission statement, “to giving voice to under-represented members of the community as well as those whose work is experimental in form and/or challenging in content.” Since its inception in February 2000, DADA has presented music concerts, short film festivals, dramatic presentations and gallery exhibitions, in addition to its monthly variety show, Samuel’s Church Café.
Samuel’s Church Café has always been best enjoyed by checking preconceptions at the door. Its monthly presentations have included DJ-driven rappers billed to precede acoustic bluegrass bands, seemingly sincere confessions from a woman with a skunk-fur fetish, intricate compositions performed by a trio of piano, cello and oboe, spoken-word angst interspersed with spontaneous flailings, and always a fervent sermon from the holy-rolling host, complete with affirmations from the “congregation.” For the last two years, the Café has been a decidedly word-of-mouth affair. Its run of 10 shows, all located in proximity to downtown Durham at locations such as the Duke Coffeehouse and the now-defunct Cosmic Cantina Lounge, drew crowds of up to 150 with minimal advertisement.
In September, the cabaret returns from summer hiatus with a new name, Café DADA. Organizers say DADA intends to produce each of this season’s 10 shows in different Durham locations. After having been awarded a Durham Arts Council Facility Grant, DADA will be kicking off the first newly monikered show in the Arts Council’s PSI Theatre.
Calling itself a “cabaret,” the Café offers the ambiance of a fabled European salon of the 1920s. Participants often enjoy the sensation of released constraints; even the mediocre Cafés offer at least a sense of anticipation. As host the Rev. Samuel Brown (aka Robert B. Stromberg) once preached, “If you don’t like what’s happening now, wait 15 minutes and there’ll be something completely different on stage.”
Longtime DADA host and co-founder Stromberg facilitates proceedings behind dark sunglasses. In the guises of his stiff-suited Bible-thumping alter egos the Rev. Samuel Brown and “Manfred,” his lanky frame gesticulates as he sermonizes, ponders philosophy, introduces new acts, and cajoles the audience to participate. Stromberg, who graduated from Duke University in 1998 with a degree in religion, has an extensive background in theater with experience in acting, designing, producing and directing.
On a recent balmy night, Stromberg took a few hours to discuss Café DADA and the general state of the arts in Durham. He arrived on Durham’s Civic Center Plaza wearing a faded T-shirt and jeans, his unruly shock of hair in attendance. The desolation of the brightly lit yet slumbering city was palpable. The interview suffered minimal interruption: Once a passing panhandler stopped to ask for help, and later a large rat scurried across the plaza.
Revitalization of the downtown husk is often discussed in Durham, and it’s a topic close to Stromberg’s heart. “I see art as a way to form community bondsthe community comes first,” he says. Stromberg’s larger goals for Café DADA include facilitating community interchange through performance and art. In contrasting Durham to Chapel Hill, Stromberg points out that Chapel Hill has many venues for local artists, but the community as a whole is much more transient. Durham, on the other hand, has a rooted working population and, according to Stromberg, “a deeper sort of community happens in working class towns.” He feels that the racially and economically varied communities of Durham need a place for “Durham artists to be out and seen by Durham residents.”
Stromberg’s original inspiration for starting a cabaret in Durham came from his experiences in Germany, where he attended the Berlin cabaret, Tanja’s Nacht Café. Stromberg lived in Berlin as a teenager, and later in Hamburg for a year of study at the Universitaet Hamburg. In Germany, with its open-atmosphered cabarets, state-supported theaters and general interest and enthusiasm for art, Stromberg experienced a cultural awakening. “I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, where art wasn’t part of the equation,” he says. “In Germany, there is an overarching and governmentally supported attitude that the quality of life is improved in part by the fostering of a healthy artist community.” According to Stromberg, the German attitude toward art approaches the metaphysical: “In Germany art makes people whole.”
Stromberg thinks that the arts could also help to make Durham whole. “Downtown is surrounded by so many different kinds of neighborhoods,” he says. “Imagine if there were a space, a home for a diversity of local performers here.” While the past DADA cabarets have done an appreciable amount of cultural mixing, Stromberg hopes that by varying Café DADA’s physical location, the variety of participants will also increase.
While Stromberg plans to be on stage at the September Café, he says that he is currently looking for a new host: His Rev. Samuel personality may or may not be presiding. Since DADA is currently trying to establish a permanent performance space, Stromberg is also considering eliminating the cabaret’s religious motif. “I don’t want any confusion that this is a real church,” he says.
Regardless of who Stromberg appears as, he is excited about taking the stage with new co-host, Rufus Xavier Sasparilla (aka R.C. Glen). Stromberg characterizes Glen as a “local legend.” Featured at earlier Cafés, Glen mesmerized audiences with his poetry and verbal improvisations.
Though Stromberg says he may be shelving his Rev. Samuel Brown persona, the renamed cabaret will continue to be full of surprises and moments of anarchy. Stromberg notes that, with Café DADA, the stage and artist are closer to the audience, “and not just in the physical sense. The host is a character, a magician in tune with whatever happens to be in the air.”