Renovation of Churchill House, Rites and Reason Theatre to usher in new era for Africana studies

The 50-year home to Africana studies at Brown, Churchill House will undergo an expansion to make room for new faculty, give graduate students more space, and create new opportunities for one of America’s oldest Black theaters.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Since the early 1970s, Churchill House on the Brown University campus has been a critical hub for scholarship and performance focused on the culture, politics and history of the African diaspora. Fifty years later, a major renovation to the building promises to support many more decades of boundary-breaking, thought-provoking research and creative work.

Over the next 15 months, Churchill House — long home to Brown’s Department of Africana Studies and its accompanying Rites and Reason Theatre, one of the oldest continuously operating Black theater companies in the United States — will be expanded and retrofitted to make room for the department’s growing ranks of faculty and students and to support its flourishing theater company.

The gut renovation, which started this summer and is expected to conclude in Fall 2023, will feature a bright, modern addition with new offices and a faculty library and lounge, expanded space for graduate students, an entrance and outdoor terrace accessible to individuals with disabilities, and a refreshed George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space, where Rites and Reason Theatre has mounted dozens of original productions. 

The plan to renovate Churchill House and the theater are rooted in part in the 2021 recommendations of Brown’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism. Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies, said the University’s support for the extensive renovations come at a pivotal time of growth for the department.

Three recent additions to the faculty — Kim Gallon, Renée Ater and Keisha Blain — are kickstarting exciting new cross-disciplinary projects on campus and igniting national discussions about women’s history, digital humanities and the legacies of racial slavery. And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated systemic racial inequalities in the U.S., and the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black Americans, interest in courses on race and inequality among Brown students has surged; more than 180 took Africana studies courses in Spring 2022.

“This expansion of Churchill House’s physical footprint is a reflection of our department’s expanding intellectual footprint at Brown,” Rooks said from the third floor of Andrews House, where department faculty, staff and graduate students will be based during construction in the 2022-23 academic year. “It’s designed to not only fulfill our current needs, but also make room for more faculty, graduate students and undergraduates. It gives us the chance to think about how we’d like to expand our scholarship and maximize our positive impact on the field in the years and decades to come.”

‘There’s a lot happening inside’

Built in 1907, Churchill House was originally home to the Rhode Island Women’s Club and was named after the organization’s founder, Elizabeth Kittredge Churchill. The University bought the building in 1970, and two years later, the University’s nascent Afro-American studies program moved in.

Since then, Afro-American studies at Brown — now called Africana studies — has seen continual growth. After the University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice recommended in 2006 that Brown “take steps to strengthen and expand the Department of Africana Studies,” the University brought a visiting committee to campus to provide advice for direction in future hiring. As a result, since 2009, cultural icons such as the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe have come to Brown as faculty and visiting fellows, enriching academic and cultural life on campus.

The committee’s recommendations also spurred the University to establish a Ph.D. program in Africana studies in 2009. And in 2011, infrastructure improvements to Churchill House gave the growing cohort of students and faculty a refreshed hub for teaching, learning and research.

More than a decade later, construction crews are beginning a more wholesale refresh of Churchill House, guided by designs from the architecture firms Marble Fairbanks and Mario Gooden Studio. Work is beginning with near-complete demolition of the building’s interior — a first step in creating a lighter, brighter and more open floor plan that will enable more collaborative work, spontaneous meetings and engagement with the broader campus community, Rooks said.

“As currently configured, the building is opaque — there’s a lot happening inside, but that’s hard for people to see, because all of the rooms and hallways are closed off from one another and from the street,” Rooks said. “The renovated building will be much more welcoming to anyone and everyone, because it will give them a glimpse into all that we do in Africana studies.”

The renovation, Rooks said, will make the most of Churchill House’s central location along Angell Street and The Walk, a series of linked green spaces that intersect campus. The building’s current entrance — set back in the shade along Angell Street — is easy for casual passersby to miss. The planned new entrance, by contrast, will be fully accessible and situated along The Walk, which thousands of University scholars and local residents use every day. It will also feature an outdoor terrace with tables and chairs that can seat about 20 — sending an important message, Rooks said, that all are welcome at Churchill House.

Inside the building’s new western entrance will be a light-filled lobby that will double as the foyer for the George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space — known colloquially on campus as the BassPAS. According to Joanna Saltonstall, a senior program manager in Brown’s Department of Facilities Management, the BassPAS — home to Rites and Reason Theatre since 1970 — will be renovated from the ground up with new insulation in the walls and ceilings, new curtains, new seating and a sophisticated lighting system. Outside the theater, the lobby’s southern wall boasts patterns of fractals — ​​geometric patterns of similar shapes repeated on ever-shrinking scales — that feature heavily in many African communities’ textiles, sculptures, architecture, styles and more.

On the other side of the lobby, Saltonstall said, crews will create a multipurpose “living room.” The reconfigured space will feature flexible seating, audiovisual equipment and large sliding glass doors, making it ideal for everything from pre-performance conversations for the Rites and Reason Theatre to small seminars and meetings to casual gathering spots for students between classes. 

“This expansion of Churchill House’s physical footprint is a reflection of our department’s expanding intellectual footprint at Brown... It gives us the chance to think about how we’d like to expand our scholarship and maximize our positive impact on the field in the years and decades to come.”

Noliwe Rooks Chair of Africana Studies
Noliwe Rooks

Meanwhile, on the east side, crews will create a three-story glass addition that will house more faculty offices and a faculty library and lounge. The Africana studies department’s many valuable books, journals and other volumes, once kept in a conference room few saw, will now be on display to the public and available for wider use, Rooks said.

“The department has a huge number of books from generations of influential scholars, and some are signed, very rare or out of print,” Rooks said. “Now, people will be able to see those collections from the street. They’ll see visual evidence of our department’s rich intellectual history.”

The building’s renovation will also provide expanded space for graduate students, who once shared a small handful of offices and one open space in Churchill House’s lower level. A new main-floor shared space for master’s and Ph.D. students will include tables, couches and space for lunchtime gatherings, quiet study time, impromptu meetings and more. A handful of private rooms will allow graduate students to meet one-on-one with undergraduates they’re teaching or mentoring. And a shared lower-level conference room will provide room for graduate students’ meetings and class sections.

“Churchill House is like a second home to our graduate students,” Rooks said. “They’re in the building all the time, hanging out between classes, meeting each other, conducting research and teaching. It was important to us to set aside more space that meets their many and varying needs.”

Saltonstall said that part of the lower level of Churchill House was once a warren of small rooms associated with Rites and Reason Theatre — a props department, a costume shop, a set storage area. When construction on the lower level is finished, Rites and Reason will have better organized spaces for costume and prop creation and storage. The lower level will also be home to a 30-person classroom with a range of technology capabilities, fully accessible bathrooms, and a foyer with photos and other memorabilia that pay homage to the history of Churchill House and Africana studies at Brown.

Rooks said she hopes the building’s renovation boosts awareness of events, performances and scholarship within Africana studies, which after five decades continues to push boundaries and impact international narratives about race, inequality and African diasporic culture.

“I can imagine a student being introduced to Africana studies by one day deciding to sit on the terrace — saying, ‘Oh, here’s somewhere to eat my lunch,’” Rooks said. “Then, one day, they might walk in the front door out of curiosity and learn about the Rites and Reason Theatre. From there, they might enroll in an Africana studies course. This renovation is more than a physical facelift. It lends itself to exploration for those who don’t know much about us already. It increases visibility for the department. It says, ‘Africana studies is part of Brown’s future.’”