DANCE TIME Leroy Thomas.
It's a Thursday afternoon, a week-and-a-half before the Roots Café is set to open its doors on Westminster Street in downtown Providence, and the place is starting to come together.
The walls smell of fresh paint — a mild orange, with red trim. And near the entryway, a series of large, round lights hang over tables covered with hand-painted images — a saxophone on this table; a hand drum, with tree-like roots sprouting from the base, on that.
Len Cabral, professional storyteller and president of Roots Café, sits at a small table in the balcony, long dreadlocks reaching down his back.
The arts-themed café — think music, paintings, and spoken word — will be a meeting place for a too-segregated state, he says: "We're rich in diversity in Rhode Island . . . but when we're separated, we miss out on each other's beauty."
If it sounds like the pronouncement of an aging hippie, well, it is.
A North Providence native, Cabral has been a fixture on the Rhode Island arts scene for decades — best known, perhaps, for his work in the 1970s and 1980s with the non-profit Providence Inner City Arts (PICA).
The group ran the Florentine Faire for about a decade — attracting festivalgoers from New York and all over New England with a multi-cultural collection of art, music, and food.
A week or two after the fair, PICA would host a sprawling get-together for volunteers that became nearly equal, in renown, to the Florentine itself — a potluck dinner, a band, and plenty of booze.
"It was a beggar's banquet," Cabral says, with a broad smile. "It was really gypsies in the palace."
PICA has been mostly dormant for the last 25 years, serving primarily as a fiscal agent for new non-profit ventures. But the core group of organizers has never lost touch. "We see each other," says Cabral. "We break bread together and we often talk about the events we did back then."
So after the Black Repertory Company fell into receivership in 2009, Cabral and his cohorts decided to come out of semi-retirement and open their café in the same spot — motivated, in part, by a desire to maintain a black presence in the hip, white swirl of downtown Providence.
Proceeds from the non-profit Roots Café will fund the work of a revitalized PICA, Cabral says, with nascent plans to work in the local schools and libraries, offering music lessons to kids and storytelling workshops for adults.
And while PICA shrinks from comparisons to the Black Rep, the group plans to keep alive the company's best-known event: the genre-defying Sound Session summer music festival, the closest thing Rhode Island has to Mardi Gras.
But the heart of PICA's work will be the café itself, where organizers envision blues, folk, and hip-hop music, Cajun drumming nights, amateur comedy, and film screenings followed by intense discussion.
"It's going to be a place," Cabral says, "where you can sit down and play chess with a stranger."
PICA will have a few scattered events before it opens full-time. First up: a fundraiser and grand opening on March 6. A $50 ticket to the 2-6 pm session buys a meal, two drinks, and music by Leroy Thomas & the Zydeco Roadrunners and the Sweet P blues band. Thomas and his crew will play again from 7 to 10 pm; admission for that set is $20.