YBOR CITY — With umbrellas piled in the corner as you walked into The Bunker, welcoming vibes mixed with the sweet aroma of coffee, hints of just-baked muffins and cookies, and a few kind hellos from the staff.
The seats, plush and cushioned, are pulled together, giving off the feeling that you’ve just walked into someone’s home — a home that features a wall of floor to ceiling windows overlooking Centennial Park and its many chickens and roosters.
The atmosphere sent a message: a rainy Sunday couldn’t stand in the way of creative expression for the veterans and artists who convened in the Ybor City coffee shop.
The Veteran Community Open Mic night at The Bunker, 1907 19th St. N, is an ongoing community partnership between the non-profit Art2Action and the coffee shop. It brings together veterans, local artists and supporters of the arts in a safe space where people can tell their stories.
"It’s wonderful to be in Ybor City because of its active nightlife and it was just the irony of luck is that it’s called, ‘The Bunker,’ which is kind of perfect," said Andrea Assaf, artistic director for Art2Action. "I think it’s important that the event is in a cafe, people mingle and connect better when there is food and drink involved."
The cafe does more than just open their doors for the open mic, it doesn’t charge and extends its Sunday hours to accommodate the guests. It also provides one complimentary tea or coffee for each veteran during the event.
"It’s our responsibility to the community to provide a platform for voices that need to be heard and talents to be shared," said Amy Hilson-Griffin, manager of The Bunker. "Events like the Veterans Open Mic, the WeSpoke Poetry Slam, and RLC all have such beautiful, talented people participating that may not have an opportunity to share their unique experiences and emotions elsewhere.
"The oppressed, the overlooked, the unappreciated, the unknown artists, they need space, we’ve got it."
Though the night is usually opened with a regular on the mic, this time the crowd warmly welcomed local artist Keisha Prime. The Trinidad native asked for a moment to calm her nerves as she announced that this was her first time performing at an open mic night.
With an acoustic guitar in hand, Prime commanded the spotlight singing a song she wrote about the reality of drinking and driving. After a few bars in, and with some enthusiastic encourage from the crowd, her nerves settled and she offered a surprisingly pleasant performance as the crowd offered supportive finger snaps — the guests way of letting the speaker know that their words have resonated with them.
Laura Ann Hartley, a third generation Army soldier and performer, shared a digital story and dance about survival and family. Hartley already held the title of Army veteran on Sept. 11, 2001, and yet she still went ahead and volunteered to be deployed.
"It’s in my DNA to serve, I’m just doing my job," she said in her performance.
Frank, an infantry veteran shared a pensive revelation, after informing the group that he makes no claims to be a poet. He’s simply a man with a few thoughts to share.
At times a strong difference of opinion will arise for an event that promotes love and acceptance for all. The rule is "battle it out on the mic," according to Assaf. That means if and when anyone has a difference of opinion they’re asked to bring it up to the group, in any way they see creatively fit.
Hartley took to the stage again that night, performing an excerpt from her piece in the recent production of Chrysalis, an original play by and about veterans that was staged this past May at the University of Tampa. In her performance Hartley describes the trauma of sexual abuse in the military and the true essence of brotherhood in the military when you feel the support of your fellow soldiers, giving the performance a bittersweet feel to it, "That defines brotherhood, that is post-traumatic growth."
"For veterans who take our workshops through the VA, it’s an opportunity to apply what they’ve been learning or creating in these workshops in a public community environment, in that way it’s kind of a reintegration event," said Assaf.
For others, the monthly evening can bring the divide between those who’ve served and those who have not. The program ultimately aims to build community through artistic expression and the joy of embracing each other’s stories.
The next Veteran’s Open Mic Night takes place Aug. 5 at The Bunker.