With alumni gathered for Black Alumni Reunion, Brown dedicates transformed Churchill House

Alumni and community members celebrated the newly transformed home of Africana Studies and Rites and Reason Theatre as part of a weekend of lectures and events focused on the Black experience at Brown.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The newly renovated Churchill House, home to Brown University’s Department of Africana Studies and the historic Rites and Reason Theatre — one of the oldest continuously operating Black theater organizations in the nation — has opened its doors to a light, bright and community-oriented building that promises to propel its scholarship and creative work to new heights.

Churchill House is now home to new indoor and outdoor spaces for interactive learning and community-building, a state-of-the-art black box theater and a fully accessible main entrance on The Walk, a series of linked green spaces that intersect the Brown campus. 

As more than 1,100 attendees — including more than 700 alumni — convened on campus for Black Alumni Reunion, graduates from across the generations celebrated the transformed space during a dedication ceremony on Friday, Oct. 27.

Attendees enter the new Churchill House doorway
Inside the building’s new western entrance is a light-filled foyer, which doubles as a lobby for the George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space. Photo by Ashley McCabe.
“We’re celebrating the expansion of the intellectual footprint of Africana studies and all of the people who have contributed so much to the important work of the past — and will continue to do so in Churchill House,” Brown President Christina H. Paxson said during the ceremony. “I’m thrilled that we now have a building that lives up to the past and future of a great institution.”

The renovations were completed just ahead of the 2023-24 academic year after 12 months of construction. From a new western entrance and light-filled foyer to a three-story glass addition to support the growth of the Department of Africana Studies, Churchill House is brimming with possibility and energy, said Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies.

“I understand now how space can enhance community,” Rooks said. “The renovation has provided us with the opportunity to embrace our past in ways that help us fully see our present and plan for our future.”

At the dedication ceremony, hundreds walked through Churchill House’s new doorways — but many didn’t get too far in before they stopped in their tracks. Crowds of alumni buzzed with a chorus of gasps; some expressed disbelief that this was indeed the same Churchill House they learned and engaged in during their time at Brown.

When the renovated building was officially dedicated — following a recitation of an original poem by Professor of Africana Studies Brian Meeks — it received a standing ovation.

The dedication of Churchill House came during a Black Alumni Reunion weekend of lectures, receptions and gatherings designed to collectively reimagine the future of the Black community at Brown. Panel discussions explored a vast array of topics, from understanding the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling on race-conscious admissions, to leveraging the power of Black votes, to exploring the evolution of the Black experience at Brown while planning for its future.

Lectures and film screenings offered an in-depth exploration of Afrofuturism, hip-hop and the life of Rosa Parks, while musical performances and visual exhibitions highlighted the legacy of Black art at Brown.

That legacy was front and center during a panel on “Building a Bridge Back to Brown,” an oral history project that collects the stories, ephemera and artifacts of Black alumni who shared memories of their experiences at Brown. Moderated by Christopher West, curator of the Black diaspora at Brown’s John Hay Library, the panel offered insights generated by the project — and work by the Department of Africana Studies to extend and expand upon those findings.

The weekend’s events also paid homage to those who have paved the way for generations of Black students and alumni. Retirement celebrations honored the work of Africana studies faculty Elmo Terry-Morgan and Paget Henry, and the community gathered to commemorate the third anniversary of the passing of beloved Professor Anani Dzidzienyo.

“This is the first time the Black Alumni Reunion is happening since the pandemic and all the other things that have happened in our community since 2018,” said Andrea O’Neal, a Class of 2003 alumna and president of Brown’s Inman Page Black Alumni Council. For O’Neal and others, the reunion provided an opportunity not only to reminisce, but to restore.

“Reconstitute and reclaim your communities,” O’Neal said, speaking directly to her fellow alumni. “Find space that feels good, and while you’re here, please, please find a song in your heart and the poetry in your soul.”

A transformation, inside and out

While there were many opportunities to reflect, there were also plenty of reasons to rejoice — including the dedication Churchill House, where the Department of Africana Studies and its Rites and Reason Theatre have thrived.

Yet for decades, the appearance of Churchill House belied the renowned scholarship and lively performance and art-making happening inside.

Its main entrance on Angell Street looked unassuming, somewhat hidden behind the shade of large magnolia trees. Its main lobby sat silent and empty, save for a sitting area furnished in subdued colors. Upstairs, visitors would often find themselves navigating a warren of narrow hallways in search of offices and meeting spaces.

That was the old Churchill House.

Rooks recalled that in some of the first renovation conversations with Brown’s Department of Facilities Management and the architecture firms Marble Fairbanks and Mario Gooden Studio, she was prompted to think beyond immediate, practical space needs — like more office space for faculty members’ ever-expanding book collections — and ponder what the entire department needed to grow and thrive.

“The driving consideration, for me, was community,” Rooks said. “How do we bring people into the building who otherwise don’t have a reason to come in? How can we give existing community members a way to find and connect with each other outside of private offices? How can we host events that communicate to people, ‘There’s something interesting here; you might want to stop by more often and see what we have going on’?”

Inside the building’s new western entrance is a light-filled foyer, which doubles as a lobby for the George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space. The lobby’s southern wall is decorated with patterns of fractals — ​​geometric patterns of similar shapes repeated on ever-shrinking scales — that feature heavily in many West African communities’ textiles, sculptures and architecture.

To the left of the foyer sits a bright multipurpose “living room” with flexible seating, audiovisual equipment and an expanse of glass. Rooks said she envisions the room serving a multitude of functions, playing host to pre-performance conversations for Rites and Reason Theatre, small seminars, meetings and casual gatherings of students between classes. 

On the right side of the foyer is the George Bass Performing Arts Space, known colloquially as the BassPAS. The space, home to Rites and Reason Theatre since 1970, has been renovated from the ground up with new insulation, new curtains, new seating and a sophisticated lighting system. The ground-floor space beneath the BassPAS, once a small maze of rooms where staff piled costumes and props, has been renovated with Rites and Reason in mind; it now includes climate-controlled rooms specifically intended for costume design and storage, set construction and more. 

To Rooks, it’s fitting that Rites and Reason Theatre was prioritized in renovations. 

"I understand now how space can enhance community. The renovation [of Churchill House] has provided us with the opportunity to embrace our past in ways that help us fully see our present and plan for our future."

Noliwe Rooks Professor and Chair of Africana Studies
Noliwe Rooks speaks at a podium

“The story of Africana studies at Brown is, first and foremost, the story of Rites and Reason, because that came before the department,” Rooks said. “The work of Rites and Reason is so interwoven into our scholarship that we think of ourselves as an art department.”

In addition to costume and prop rooms, Churchill House’s lower level now also boasts a 30-person classroom with a range of technology capabilities, fully accessible bathrooms, and a foyer where visitors can view photos and memorabilia that pay homage to the history of Churchill House and Africana studies at Brown.

The east side of the building, meanwhile, has a three-story glass addition that was created with the department’s growing ranks of faculty in mind. The space is home to new offices and a faculty library and lounge filled with rare books, journals and other volumes once stored in a conference room.

Rooks said several more new spaces throughout Churchill House are a nod to graduate students, who once had little room beyond a small handful of offices and a basement lounge. A new shared space on the main floor for graduate students includes tables, couches and space for lunchtime gatherings, quiet study time and impromptu meetings. Private rooms allow graduate instructors to meet on-on-one with the undergraduates they teach and mentor. They can also reserve a small conference room with state-of-the-art audio-visual capabilities on the lower level for meetings and class sections.

The building’s west side is now its main entrance — a change designed to enable awareness and increase use of the building, said Joanna Saltonstall, a senior program manager in Facilities Management. A wheelchair ramp from Angell Street leads not only to Churchill House’s new automatic doors but also to a furnished, sun-drenched terrace that overlooks The Walk.

Attendees gather and laugh in the new churchill house lobby
The lobby of the new Churchill House was a popular gathering spot on Oct. 27 as alumni toured the renovated building. Photo by Ashley McCabe. 
“Even outside the building, the renovations honor the department’s overarching goal to become a go-to gathering place for faculty, concentrators and the broader campus community,” Saltonstall said. “The terrace is another collaborative space that presents infinite possibilities: It can be used as a space to relax between classes, to host receptions or even to give performances.”

Rooks said that last year, as news spread of the plans for Churchill House, her inbox overflowed with ideas for collaborative projects, cross-disciplinary courses and original productions that could take place in the building’s new and improved spaces. She didn’t find the deluge overwhelming so much as exhilarating. 

From theater productions and a visiting writers series, to artmaking and nascent projects like creating an arts-based summer camp for Providence kids, Rooks and her colleagues anticipate a broad swath of interest and possibility in the department’s newly renovated spaces.

“There’s so much artistry baked in at Brown that almost every student’s primary language is artistic, even if they came to Brown to study computer science or engineering,” Rooks said. “By offering these courses and events that encourage creative thought, we’re sending the message that every student, every discipline, every background is welcome at Churchill House.”