Wayson Jones and Michelle Parkerson in front of the now-shuttered ENIKAlley Coffeehouse. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It’s the intimacy of ENIKAlley Coffeehouse that Wayson Jones remembers most. The small carriage house-turned-performance space located just off H Street NE was a thriving hub for D.C.’s Black LGBTQ community in the 1980s. “I remember the intimacy. I remember the feeling of community,” Jones tells City Paper. “That was palpable—it seemed that everyone knew one another.”

Jones, who describes himself as gregarious, admits he still felt a “little socially awkward” during his first few visits to ENIKAlley, a performance venue, rehearsal space, and gathering spot for artists and political organizations that opened in 1982. A musician, performer, and visual artist, Jones didn’t begin to feel truly at home in the coffeehouse community until he began performing on its stage,  often with his longtime friend and frequent collaborator Essex Hemphill, the renowned poet, activist, and editor of Brother to Brother

Jones—along with acclaimed local artist and activist Christopher Prince, award-winning filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, writer and founding member of performance poets and writers’ collective Station-to-Station Gregory Adams, and playwright Pamela A. Jafari—has spent the past two years working to tell the long lost story of ENIKAlley. On Aug. 21, their new documentary, Fierceness Served! The ENIKAlley Coffeehouse, premieres virtually. Directed by Parkerson, the 34-minute film combines history, interviews, archival photos, music, and spoken word to tell the story of the influential but oft-forgotten space, which shuttered in 1989.

Though its brick facade was unassuming, ENIKAlley was a game-changing space for Black queer people to gather freely and unapologetically. And it was a place for Black LGBTQ performers to work together and perfect their art. “Collaboration was an important part of the Coffeehouse experience,” says Prince, who frequently performed with Jones, Hemphill, Parkerson, and others, via email. “I remember the long afternoons or evenings of rehearsals, repeating lines and poetry over and over again. This was the work that built art and family.”  

In the early ’80s, Ray Melrose and his partner, Gary, decided to convert the carriage house facing the alley behind their home at 816 I St. NE to accommodate the many people already attending their potlucks and gatherings. “It’s literally the found space in an alley for majority Black, but just also in general queer artists to find themselves,” says Delan Ellington, a graduate student in public history at Howard University and Rainbow History Project board member who is also featured in the film. It’s “indicative of how Black queer people have to make their own queer spaces to do what they need to do, what they want to do,” Ellington says.

Prince describes the space as basic: hot during summer months and cold in winter when the brick fireplace was ablaze. But despite its modest appearance, the venue was a space for artists such as Hemphill, Audre Lorde, and Barbara Smith, who came from near and far to perform within those walls. When the space was full, attendees would often watch performances through a large square cutout in the second floor loft, which Prince suspects was originally created to feed horses once housed below. Sometimes, people’s legs would dangle through the opening, says Prince. 

But the coffeehouse was also a place for political and social groups to meet and organize. According to Prince, the D.C.-Baltimore Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, which later became the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, frequently gathered at the coffeehouse during the ’80s. A year after opening, the space also became homebase for D.C.’s Sapphire Sapphos, the city’s first ongoing political, social, and cultural group for Black lesbians.

Scholars have referred to the 1980s as the Black Gay Cultural Renaissance. Some say it was in keeping with the changing culture, others say it was a response to AIDS. As Darius Bost, Ph.D., author of Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence (who is interviewed in the film), explains in an 2019 essay for Oxford African American Studies Center, other factors leading to the renaissance were the “the rise of the Christian right, and the backlash against civil rights gains made in the 1960s and 1970s,” as well as cultural and political movements within Black America. Jones says it was happening in various cities, but D.C.’s contribution to the Black Gay Cultural Renaissance stood out. “There was really nothing like the coffeehouse that was an actual, physical space,” says Jones. “A venue that was all ours.” 

Jones is not the only one to make such claims about D.C.’s contribution to Black queer culture. In the film, Earl Fowlkes, president and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, recounts his first time patronizing the coffeehouse while visiting from New York. The space was filled with “people who looked like me and I was stunned because I never did anything cultural with people of color in the LGBT community in New York. I went to Broadway plays, Lincoln Center, I went to Carnegie Hall,” says Fowlkes, adding: “Very few people were doing cultural work.” Today, Fowlkes calls D.C. home. Parkerson agrees: “It was, in fact, as many people say in the film, the hub of the Black Gay Renaissance of the 1980s.” 

The pandemic impacted the documentary’s funding and, ultimately, its length. Though the steering committee (Jones, Prince, Parkerson, Jafari, and Adams) had hoped to make the documentary 60 to 90 minutes, they received a Humanities DC grant to make a film under 40 minutes and that’s what they fulfilled with Fierceness Served!  It manages to pack a lot of history into its humble half hour, leaving viewers hungry for more. “Coming up with an idea that would at least inspire people to go deeper in a half-hour format was what I was challenged with,” says Parkerson, who has also directed the documentaries A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, Storme: Lady of the Jewel Box, and several other films about iconic Black lesbian artists. She also credits the coffeehouse for helping fan the flames of her career. 

“It at least needed to be a ninety-minute film,” says Parkerson, noting that each person named in the documentary deserves their own feature. “But I’m happy we got it done. And it’s a half hour and it’s a beginning,” she says.

Defined by the pandemic, it’s clear Fierceness Served! was made during COVID-19—some of the people interviewed are masked, and others share memories via Zoom, including many West Coast artists such as Jewelle Gomez. The effect is a feeling of urgency—the creators’ and participants’ determination to tell the story of the coffeehouse and its artists is palpable. But that urgency runs beyond needing to tell the tale. As Parkerson explains, the steering committee couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, but it wasn’t going to stop them from making the film, stating: Perhaps there’s never an “optimal time” to tell one’s story. 

“There’s a reason why it happened during a pandemic,” says Parkerson. “It was also quite a parallel with what the coffeehouse was about at the time with the AIDS epidemic at its development. Why do this now? Why do that then?” The similarities of the two pandemics hover in the film, especially because many of the coffeehouse crew, including Melrose and Hemphill, died of AIDS.

But the spark that started this journey was lit in 2019, when a two-part panel on the history of d.c. space failed to mention the coffeehouse or any of the performers who perfected their craft on its stage. Jones, who performed regularly at d.c. space, along with Hemphill, Prince, and other burgeoning coffeehouse artists, calls the venue, which sat at 7th and E streets NW from 1977 to 1991, the most progressive in the city. It featured everything from punk to poetry, avant-garde jazz to dinner theater, but despite its diverse lineups, Jones says only the punk scene was addressed at the panel.

“It basically covered all the White stuff,” Jones explains. “I leave the second time and I’m like, why should I expect anybody—and specifically this White guy who wasn’t around […]—why should I expect him to tell our story? It was really this feeling of: Don’t wait for somebody else, tell your own story.” 

So Jones called Prince, and before long the steering committee of the five “participating witnesses”—as Parkerson refers to the team—was plotting how to ensure this crucial part of D.C.’s history became known. “That anger was kind of a catalyst,” says Jones. “I didn’t specifically have a film in mind. I just had the idea to tell the story and in a way that would be archival.”  

The question of whose stories get told drives the documentary. In it, Ellington asks: “If we don’t collect and preserve our own history, who is going to collect and preserve it?” Expanding on this thought, which they credit to the Combahee River Collective, Ellington explains: “The cliché is ‘history is written by the victors’”—typically White, straight, cisgender men and, to a lesser degree, women. Those are the stories that get told and the places that get memorialized. According to Ellington, the National Registry of Historic Places has fewer than 20 LGBTQ sites, and only three have to do with Black queer people.

Even White queer historians with the best of intentions might not uncover a full account of Black LGBTQ history, explains Ellington. They believe the path toward better uncovering Black queer history starts with Black queer historians being handed the torch. 

It also has to do with who is recording the history and whose stories are being collected. Ellington calls it the “snowball effect”: when a historian interviews one person who then connects them to other sources within their community. The resulting network has to do with who the historian starts with and who they have access to. “It has always been pick and choose, and scarcely, as to what Black history is carried on, what Black queer history is even talked about,” says Ellington. 

Parkerson echoes Ellington and Jones about the need to tell your own story. It’s why she came on board after hearing Jones’ experience with the 2019 panel. A “corrective” was needed, she says. “You can’t count on people, and queer historians out there, to suddenly discover it and say, ‘Hey, this might make [an] interesting idea.’”

Much like the coffeehouse, which is remembered for its collaborative, family-like energy, Parkerson says making the film was a collaborative effort, with the ultimate goal of doing right by the space’s history. It’s why the film doesn’t feel like a typical documentary. Parkerson says: “It needed to be an artistic piece. It’s not journalism in that sense.”

While the story of ENIKAlley has flown under the radar for the past several decades, its legacy has not. “The coffeehouse mattered because it was a space for all these artists and creators to come together and be in a place of collaboration, a place of support and affirmation,” says Ellington. “It was a place for them to perform in front of people … It’s part of what sets the foundation for the Black queer literary movement or the Black queer cultural movement.”

Parkerson agrees, noting that much of the success achieved by herself, Hemphill, and many others may not have been possible without such a gathering space. Today, she says the legacy of ENIKAlley exists within the young, queer Black artists who continue to create groundbreaking work. She confirms the steering committee is currently talking about next steps and the possibility of making a full-length documentary and says if a second project is undertaken, she hopes to add more voices from the up-and-coming generation. 

Jones notes, however, that sometimes, in the retelling of history, it’s easy to reframe the coffeehouse’s story as a response to AIDS, Ronald Reagan, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s. But that, he says, often overlooks the artists’ drive to create and the joy that bloomed within the space and among the artists. “I mean, it was fun,” says Jones, recalling hours of rehearsing with Hemphill, where they would high-five one another with so much enthusiasm their palms ached. “It was tremendous fun. It was exciting.” Despite its cliché, Jones concludes that ENIKAlley was “world-making—that’s what it was. It was like a world unto itself.”    

Fierceness Served! The ENIKAlley Coffeehouse premieres virtually at 6 p.m. on Aug. 21. thecoffeehousedc.com. Free, but registration is required.