New Haven's Story Man
Reverend Kevin Ewing has spent his whole life laying down thick, fast-growing roots. Now he’s trying to push them further into the community, and asking for its help as he does.
Ewing—or “RevKev,” as he’s also known around New Haven—is the founder and owner of Baobab Tree Studios, a recording studio and video production space in the city’s Ninth Square neighborhood. For three years, he has worked out of those offices at 71 Orange St., producing podcasts, editing video and heading up the New Haven Story Project. He also serves as Transitional Minister at New Haven’s Center Church on the Green and Associate Minister at the Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford.
Baobab Tree Studios began in 2014, when The Grove coworking space moved from Orange Street around the corner to Chapel. At the time, The Grove space had just become part of a five-year, $5 million plan from the state to “reboot” the area, the city, and the state. Founder Slate Ballard suggested to Ewing that he turn the building into a digital production studio.
Ewing took the offer, naming the space The Grove Studios after its past life. Without enough capital to pay staff, he recruited a rotating team of producers who were themselves videographers and musicians, offering them two hours of recording time for every one hour they worked. The form of payment worked: Word about the new studios spread, and artists came through the door with projects they wanted to complete, from records to experimental podcasts.
In 2015, Ewing rechristened the offices Baobab Tree Studios, after an eponymous tree in Africa—its pronunciation varies by region, but its growth is nearly continent-wide—that appears almost inverted, with thick and gnarled branches reaching out like roots. His vision, he said, was to have everyone in the shadow of the Baobab Tree.
And that has happened for him. As he collected audio for the New Haven Story Project at neighborhood gatherings, collaborators across the city hopped onboard to work with him. He landed projects “by word of mouth” alone, he said—local recording artists like Hanifa Washington, short-lived podcast hosts Andy Boone and Jason Macaluso of Bowties & Striped Socks, and long-running podcasts like “Moving Target” joined the studio to collaborate.
As word spread, he began to work with Artspace New Haven and A Broken Umbrella Theatre (ABUT), a partnership that has continued into its recent project Exchange. He said that the studios currently get 3,000-4,000 Google hits a week with no advertisement, and that he’s dedicated to keeping prices low, at $50 per hour of recording.
“That means we have to come up with some creative ways of staying alive,” he said in a recent interview at the studios, looking out onto Orange Street from the lobby. “We come up with a stretched budget … and make it work. I think we’re in a really good place—the vision really hasn’t changed. It’s been refined and improved.”
He referenced the design thinking model—a process whereby one identifies a gap, thinks about that gap, and then “sets about to work around it, what they do.”
“We’ve been around that process a couple of times and we’ve figured out where we need to be,” he said. “Maybe we can get out and we can cover some of the meetings that are happening around town. We can live stream them … having the capacity to do those things, that’s the kind of thing we’re thinking about.”
It’s not to say Baobab hasn’t struggled, he said. Very few of the producers are paid, and he has paid rent out of pocket more than once. But he’s hoping to expand it to community events and public meetings, including the police commission, Board of Education and aldermanic events at City Hall. The studios recently welcomed economic justice crusader Nikki Katz onboard, and Ewing said he is hoping she’ll handle the business end of things.
But that immersive community engagement didn’t start in New Haven. It reaches back to the 1960s, to a tight-knit neighborhood on the north side of St. Louis where he was born and raised.
Born at the beginning of a sticky St. Louis July, Ewing grew up on the north side of the city, in a middle-class black neighborhood sandwiched between St. Louis Avenue and Natural Bridge Road. The town ran on the schedule of a now-shuttered General Motors-Chevrolet Plant, where his neighbors punched in each day, turning corvettes and jeeps into steady incomes along an assembly line.
His family’s first love was faith. Packed in with his brother and sister in the pews at Kennerly Temple Church of God in Christ, he watched as his father became a deacon, and then associate pastor. Each week, Ewing would watch congregants come to the front of the church, admit their wrongs, and give testimonies. He questioned his faith, he said, but he never lost it. Not exactly.
“Either what they were teaching me was wrong, or God was messed up.”
Ewing envisioned a different sort of pulpit for himself—one furnished with curtains and lights, and a proscenium stage. That transformation first happened when he was a teenager, enrolled in an early-magnet-prototype called Metro High (the original building is now the city's crematorium, which Ewing said feels symbolic). Introduced to theater by one Mrs. Heloise Mayer, Ewing set his sights on becoming a drama teacher.
“She was regal,” Ewing recalled of Mayer, who died in 2012. “We called every teacher in the school by their first name but she was Mrs. Always Mrs.”
Mayer nurtured him. But there was a catch: His father forbade theater as a college major. Enrolled in the Army Reserves after high school, Ewing was able to attend the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). There, he hopped from major to major, hoping something would stick. Nothing totally did.
“If I had known that I could have double-majored in theater and education and become a drama teacher, maybe I would have,” he said. “But I didn’t.”
Instead, he put theater on the back burner, and stepped onto a civic stage. He became a cop.
It didn’t follow a script he’d expected. He was a reserve officer with the St. Louis City Police Department, and held down a second job as an after-school bus driver for the city’s Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur, an upscale suburb. Then he was transferred to Kinloch, an all-black municipality that was losing people, and growing crime. With a police salary that started at $5.32 an hour, he had to pay his way through the police academy, attending classes during the day and patrolling the streets at night.
“I don’t know how I survived,” he recalled. “But I did.”
For a while. Transferred to the wealthy, predominately white suburb of Olivette, Ewing became depressed. He said he was confident that he was good at his job—that “the people on the street liked me…they knew I wouldn’t do ‘em dirty”—but that it was eating him from the inside.
“I was drinking a lot, I was smoking two, three packs of cigarettes a day,” he recalled. “I would, on duty, pop home for lunch and drink three beers, and go back out on duty and write tickets for DUI. It was killing me. It was killing me, literally.”
Ewing decided to move to Florida with his friend James, the same one who had talked him into becoming a cop at the same time. His big break came in a package he wasn’t expecting: The Surfside Players, of a community theater group in Coco Beach. It wasn't fancy work, Ewing said. He swept a lot of floors, and ushered a lot of performances. But after stints working with youth and in a sanitation company, he knew that it was what he wanted to be doing. And it came with roles every few months.
“Anytime they needed a black actor in Brevard County, they would call me,” he laughed, recalling performances of Driving Miss Daisy and I'm Not Rappaport. “I played a lot of old men.”
As he became fluent in the world of production, he moved on to a company called Jack Lincoln Associates, doing sound, lighting and stage managing for major concert tours and working with musical icons like Frank Sinatra and M.C. Hammer. He realized, he said, that he didn't want to be in Florida after all. He wanted to be in The Big Apple.
In 1992, he headed to New York City with plans to work in theater and television. He’d never been before. But when, that November, he found a fifth-floor walkup on 39th and 9th, he was enamored.
It felt like a DIY kind of place, Ewing said. And it was there those production roots began to tunnel through the soil, gaining precision and speed as they did. First at Studio 54, as Ewing mastered the electrics and lighting boards in a three-theater studio, working nearly seven days a week for three years straight. Then with the mayor of the city himself.
In 1996, his production itch led to a job at then-vibrant Crosswalks Television, a cable franchise with ten public access and government subsidiaries. Hired at the beginning of the cable television boom, Ewing produced a new television show called “Live From City Hall With Rudy Giuliani,” filmed out of his office. It was a turning point for his production career: He became fluent in New York’s political hoop-jumping, guiding Giuliani through a now-notorious ferret episode and challenging the then-mayor to think more broadly about the city’s black communities.
It led him to a gig with “What’s The 411?” a new show about black culture and community in New York. Ewing’s offices were “the streets,” he said, where he interviewed “everybody in the record industry … black music mostly.” That included a nascent and burgeoning hip-hop scene, but also artists like Diana Ross and Quincy Jones.
“I was one of those guys who could show up to a party with the velvet rope and they’d say ‘Hey! 411! Come on in! Party’s upstairs. Jets up there. Giants up there. Knicks up there. You can go hang out.”
But the network got sold, and Ewing needed another job. When he headed to a temp agency “looking for some quick money,” someone there sent him to Hartford Insurance. He was working out of the company’s New York offices "as a steno girl" when he saw computers, a whole sea of them, just sitting in their boxes. And that production light blinked brightly on once more.
Employees were still working on typewriters. Ewing saw an open door: His production experience had taught him how to program and use early word processing formats. So he turned the company’s insurance forms into templates on Microsoft word.
The company wanted to implement it, managers told him. Then he landed in the company’s management training program, where he became the assistant operations manager for the New York City region. In 1999, he was offered a full-time position as assistant director of operations. It “was sentencing me to Hartford,” he said. He moved permanently to the city in 2000.
Ewing continued on a string of promotions until 2003, when the company laid off more than 800 people company wide. His whole department was wiped out. His supervisor counseled him to lay low for a few weeks, and then reapply to the company. They’d give him the same job, with a new title.
Ewing wasn’t okay doing that. “I’d hit a ceiling, he said."
He looked at how much the company made from laying off 800 people, and compared it to the amount of money administrators and higher-ups made when the stock price shot up. He realized that it was nearly the same amount—that “laying off 800 people made 11 people a shitload of money.” That “there was no real savings.”
When he went to look for a new job, that production light went on again. He took time to hear the stories of people who came through the placement center. More time talking, he said, than looking for a position itself. He realized he wanted out. He didn't want to be looking for employment: He wanted to be helping them tell their stories, and get jobs in the process. He wanted to help.
“I was hearing these stories of people that were in their 50s, who started the job when they were 16 and had never worked any place else,” he recalled. “They realized … they didn’t know what they were going to do. They had just refinanced their house. They had a kid that had started college. They were without work, and hadn’t filled out an application in 40 years. They had no clue what to do.”
“I saw so much hurt and so much pain and suffering in folks and I was like, ‘This is bullshit. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore. What am I gonna do.?'”
He thought about law school. Then he thought about an MBA. He was accepted into film school in the University of the Netherlands, but thought that it wasn’t the right fit. And then he remembered a church on Kennerly Street. And another one on Florida. And several in New York.
“All of my life I was called to ministry,” he said. “But it wasn’t going to be the kind of ministry I grew up seeing. It was going to be something different.”
His friend John Selders, a bishop in Hartford, helped him get access to a course on the history and polity of the UCC at Yale's Divinity School. He got honors in the class. And he decided to keep going.
Within a year, Ewing was a full-time student at the Divinity School. New to New Haven, he got a job working for the then-dubbed Mutual Housing Association of New Haven, now NeighborWorks New Horizons. There too, he centered his life around listening; He became an organizer, working full time while he also attended school.
As he sees it, Ewing said, his faith and his interest in production aren't that different. They never were. When he graduated from Yale, he continued his work in the community, organizing for The Community Foundation of Greater New Haven in Fair Haven/Chatham Square, Hill North and West River. In 2013, he was one of the founding members of something called “The Grove,” a new co-working space on Orange Street. At the same time, he served stints at local churches, including one that continues at the United Church on the Green.
"To a lot of folks, it might look like I'm kind of all over the place doing a bunch of different, crazy stuff that has no connection. But to me, there is a connection," Ewing said. "And that's people."
"The basic tenant of my faith is love," he continued. "Jesus said the greatest commandment is love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Narrow that down to just love. My experience is teaching me that a lot of the time, the reason we don't love each other, or even try to love each other, is because we don't know each other."
Which, he said, ties into an endeavor he's trying out both at Baobab and in other areas of his life, called building a relational culture. That is, "trying to create a culture where people are accustomed to relating. To getting to know each other." A culture that includes more podcasts, more storytelling around the city, and more coverage of civic events.
"I believe the way we get to know each other is through story," he said. "It all goes back down to story. It's very easy for me to love you just as I love myself, because I see that we're still the same in a lot of ways. There are some things that are different, but that's what makes it fun."
Throughout the month of November, The Arts Paper will be profiling winners of the 2017 Arts Awards. Those winners are: Kevin Ewing, Diane Brown, Musical Intervention, New Haven’s Nasty Women Exhibition, the Architecture Resource Center (ARC) and Jock Reynolds. This is our first installment.