In the spring of 2013, Alisha Patterson and her husband, Scott, were driving back from a cousin’s birthday party in Towson to their home in D.C. when they became hopelessly lost, and by a strange twist of fate, wound up in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
Alisha and Scott had been involved D.C.’s theater and music scenes for years, and were beginning to breathe life into their own fledgling arts organization, Afro House. But they needed a change. D.C. felt too transitional and institutionalized, and they yearned to be part of a larger, more experimental arts community with room to grow. Peering through their car windows at Station North’s string of DIY spaces was a revelation.
“There’s something happening here,’” Alisha said. “Baltimore just felt right.” The Pattersons moved into Baltimore’s Moravia neighborhood that fall. Their cozy, two-story house near Morgan State University became the new home base for Afro House–and the home of their first concert series.
Scott and Alisha founded the performing company to create original work which combined live performances and fine arts. Afro House’s mantra is “disruptive music culture.” With that in mind, they’ve produced two experimental performance pieces, Ebon Kojo: The Last Tribe, and the new Afro Punk Ballet, and formed a touring music ensemble, Astronaut Symphony.
“We wanted to have a place where we can tell new stories,” Scott said, ‘with no limitations except the ones we put on ourselves.”
Afro House is more than just Scott and Alisha. Eric Styles is their artistic director, Scott’s brother Preston handles choreography, and each performance features a rotating cast of musicians, dancers, and singers. Sometimes the musicians are also the dancers. But Alisha and Scott are the heart and soul of Afro House. She’s the administrative, budget-oriented planner; he’s the composer. And it’s easier to understand their vision if you know their past.
Scott was always meant to be a pianist–or so his mother decided, before he was even born.
“She was pregnant with me, and said, ‘This one’s going to be a pianist,’” he said, laughing. “When I turned five, she bought a piano and I started piano lessons and I haven’t stopped playing the piano.”
Growing up, he studied classical music, performed in Baptist churches and attended the University of Cincinnati for musical theater–for one week, until his mother called the school and convinced Scott’s advisor to re-enroll him in the school’s classical piano program. Scott and Alisha first met through a student organization at the University of Cincinnati, before temporarily parting ways.
After graduating, Scott enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music and spent years grinding out a living in New York’s musician-for-hire scene.
“Afro-Cuban bands, jazz quartets, R&B bands, gospel bands, musical theater, classical concerts–anything I could get my hands on to try and make money,” he said. “Less trying to make art.”
They re-connected in 2011 in D.C., where Alisha had been working in the Studio Theatre’s box office, and later managing the box office of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepardstown, West Virginia. Alisha had been feeling lost–worried about finding a stable career in arts administration, contemplating grad school.
“Scott and I met and I was like, ‘OK, enough of this,’” she said. “We’ve tried everything else in terms of work. Why don’t we try building something together ourselves?”
At the same time, they began to build a family, marrying and welcoming their first son, Judah (now 7) and their second, 5-year-old Ra. Afro House’s first large-scale production, Ebon Kojo: The Last Tribe, seemed to push all of the boundaries at once. Set in a futuristic, far-off world, it follows two characters, Ra-7 and General Kojo as they recast the formerly desolate planet Beta-5.
Billed as a “sci-fi tone poem,” Ebon Kojo poses the question, “What if a man struggling against being mechanical could not accept his son as anything but a machine?” It began as a one-man show and later grew into an ensemble.
“It was the first work where I felt like I was completely able to be myself,” Scott said. “I was a father for the first time, a husband for the first time. All this happened at once.”
Afro House spent a week workshopping Ebon Kojo at the arts hub Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mt. Rainer before taking it to the Charm City Fringe Festival, and later, a residency at Single Carrot Theatre. That made some waves in the Baltimore arts scene, but Afro House really started to take off when Scott and Alisha launched their house concert series for the Astronaut Symphony Ensemble.
Scott had looked at different venues in and around Baltimore, but nothing seemed a good fit for the experimental ensemble. So he lobbied Alisha to make their home the stage. “I was against it at first,” Alisha said. “But I’m so glad we did, because it’s opened up another world for us.”
Afro House kicked off its house concert series in November 2017, with a show every other month at the Pattersons’ house. The first one drew an audience of 13. The second had more than 50 (“People were in the hallway, we were packed like sardines,” Alisha remembers).
The next Afro House production will be its biggest yet–Afro Punk Ballet, which features a cast of almost a dozen and is part two of the trilogy which began with Ebon Kojo. In it, two sisters must face the fallout from their father’s ill-advised decision to build a second sun in their solar system.
Perhaps the most radical aspect of Afro Punk Ballet is that all of the performers will take turns singing, dancing and playing music. No one is confined to a single role. “We wanted to break down all the barriers,” Scott said. “Everyone is going to do everything.”
At a preview fundraiser this past summer in Single Carrot Theater, the ballet dancers, opera singers, and musicians all sang, danced, and played in turn. But Afro House is just getting started with the ballet. A performance of Act 1 was scheduled for early October at the Peale Center, followed by more workshops and work-in-progress performances and a premiere in 2020.
In the past several years, the Pattersons’ house in Baltimore has evolved into a multi-purpose DIY space: home base for Afro House, the setting for popular house concerts, a practice and rehearsal space for Scott and other performers, and where he and Alisha have raised their two young boys. Neither could imagine living anywhere else.
“It’s almost like we were called here,” Scott said. “It feels magical.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Issue 06: Place (Fall 2018) of the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas
Photos by Theresa Keil