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Open Mic, Open Minds at Cafe Unity

By Lauren Woods Posted: 03/01/2010
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The Inter-Religious Council (IRC) transformed Brooks Commons into a homey coffeehouse for Café Unity on Thursday, complete with pillows for seating, dim lighting and the aroma of delicious, free desserts. The monthly open-mic night features performances by Emory students, usually spoken word, music and other forms of art following the theme for the night. February’s theme was “Unity in Races,” which the IRC meant to honor Black History Month.

With 12 performers and about 30 attendees, the night had an intimate and casual feel as the audience members paid close attention to each performer.

The gathering seemed to go deeper than the typical open mic, with both its content and atmosphere.

Several IRC members said that while it is great to have performances that relate to the organization’s goal of unifying students of different religious traditions, it is not an essential part of Café Unity.

“Sometimes people present faith-based things, but we want to foster a welcoming environment; it’s more about the people that come than what actually happens at Café Unity,” College sophomore Ariel Wolpe and IRC member said.

College junior Nwando Bosah then took to the stage, singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” first with background music, then a cappella. After she apologetically explained to the crowd that she needed to start over, students replied with claps and words of encouragement.

Far from the stiff and intimidating atmosphere that can invade some venues for artistic expression, the audience and performers seemed to have overwhelmingly positive interactions at Café Unity.

Adding to the familial atmosphere, College senior David Tran appeared three times in the show, and resisted the opportunity to play solo.

He spontaneously invited two friends from the audience, as well as the rest of the crowd, to join him in signing Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.”

The performances varied in their relation to the “Unity in Races” theme. When the songs or poems did not relate, the performer almost always noted that they were not ignoring the theme, but did not have time or opportunity to change their chosen piece.

Even as some performances lacked intentional meaning, they provided it in their own way, as they involved the audience and added to the intimate feel.

IRC member and College junior Emily Pinto pointed out that while there is a reason for the theme, students are encouraged to share even if the content is not directly related.

“We try to create a warm and small environment, so that it would be easier for a creative writing major to read their work at Café Unity rather than get up in front of everyone at Java Monkey,” Pinto said.

This goal of creating a feeling of community was especially evident when College junior and IRC member Noor Najafi took over as the evening’s emcee.

He frequently encouraged audience members to mingle, and after just three performances, Najafi instructed everyone in attendance to hug at least three people they did not know.

The audience eventually responded, and Najafi had trouble getting the crowd to quiet again after they were given a few minutes to socialize and visit the dessert table.

The rest of the evening was not lacking a serious tone, although it came along with the usual lightheartedness from the audience.

College senior Caitlin Etherton’s original pieces “In Eden” and “They’re Not Done Yet” garnered chuckles from the audience as they found humor in the ironic pieces of her spoken-word performance.

As she read “In Eden,” a poem about letting the Biblical character Eve speak, Etherton’s voice was laced with anger, complementing the generally lighthearted feeling of the night.

The final performance featured what Najafi called one of Emory’s most famous groups, Sarah and the Barbaloots. College seniors Sarah Armstrong, Zach Hennessee, Ian Hennessee and Will Ruff closed the night with four upbeat songs, highlighting their unique style that primarily reflects a twist on bluegrass.

IRC members and their friends began dancing by the second song from this group, adding to the energetic atmosphere of an evening celebrating art and acceptance at Emory.

— Contact Lauren Woods.

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