Inside the spacious living area of an Anacostia townhouse, D.C. poet, improv artist, and writerSlli’m Williams takes out his cellphone and opens to a page of his recently published Kindle book, SAY NERD! Colorful Musings from a Nerd of Color.
This is Little Salon, and only the fourth out of 48 total events to occur east of the Anacostia River since the series started in 2014. Little Salon is a series of monthly gatherings that offer performances by musicians, actors, improv artists, and readings by authors, including poets. Visual artists display their work at the events, which are often held in someone’s home.
With the assurance and cadence of a rapper, Williams thunders through a piece that includes observations about nerd life, with clever allusions to nerd cultural icons like Marvel superheroes. The crowd of about 70 that stretches from the spacious living area back to the kitchen might make a fire marshal wince, and strains the air conditioning. The audience leans heavily millennial and mostly white, though there are some Gen-Xers, a couple of Baby Boomers, and a sprinkling of people of color in the crowd.
Williams kills. The crowd laughs and applauds enthusiastically. As he wraps up his set, the 6-foot-6-inch performer spies Jordan Brown, the leader of the local indie rock band The House You Grew Up In, which performed before Williams. Many of the band members live in Bloomingdale, in Northwest. “Have you tried any hip-hop fusion?” Brown is momentarily caught off guard, but responds he’s got a side project going, something about an 8-track. “We should talk,” Williams responds.
The interaction on Tuesday night is the kind that writer Chris Maier, founder of Little Salon, couldn’t have penned any better himself for this most recent iteration of his ongoing project.
“I think of bridges as going both ways,” Maier says. Bringing salons to neighborhoods east of the river not only provides cultural events for people in those areas, but it also provides opportunities for members of Little Salon’s loyal following to interact with artists and performers from east of the river.
Little Salon’s first event east of the river was in August 2016, also in Anacostia. It’s also had salons in Congress Heights in Southeast and in the Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast. When he started organizing events east of the river, one of the first people Maier talked to was Amy Lokoff, who at the time worked at the Anacostia Arts Center. Maier asked her about artists in the area.
Lokoff supports Maier’s efforts to have more salons east of the river, noting that such events not only provide opportunities for residents there to take in art and performances, they also help educate individuals who have little experience in that part of the city. “It’s easy to write off Ward 7 and Ward 8 as being poor and dangerous, and nothing else,” she says. “I think [events like salons] are a good chance to break down that false narrative.”
Lokoff worries, however, that some residents might perceive salons as “Columbusing,” particularly if they’re wary of gentrification. She also wonders whether the typical price of a ticket—$20—might be out of reach for some. (Maier has been meeting with people involved with the arts in communities east of the river, to ask about performers and possible venues. Ticket proceeds help offset the costs associated with putting on an event and also allow Maier to pay honorariums to performers).
The two African-American artists who participated in Tuesday’s event said they appreciated the opportunity to bring their work to a new audience. Nicollete Gordon, an abstract line artist who lives in Anacostia, displayed some of her work at the event. “It seems like their concept is to highlight emerging artists, so I appreciate [the opportunity],” she says.
Williams, a D.C. native who hosts an open mic at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia the second Tuesday night of every month, agrees. “I’m in favor of making sure art is proliferated throughout all communities,” Williams says minutes before his performance. “That means my voice is going to be heard in this room. Other voices will be heard in this room. I think that’s all an A-plus.”
Maier says he has no immediate plans to host another Little Salon east of the river. “Finding hosts—on any side of the river—is the hardest part. But we definitely plan to be back as regularly as we can,” he says.