Editor’s Note: Athens is known for its vibrant, diverse, local music scene. In this weekly series, reporter Earl Hopkins showcases several locations around town, detailing the similarities and differences.
This story appears in the Friday, April 19 newspaper on Page A3.
ATHENS — The open mic scene is a relatively niche-filled lane for Athens locals. They have found a home, though, at Donkey Coffee & Espresso on West Washington Street. The coffee shop serves as one of the city’s staples for artists, poets and musicians looking for a platform to channel their self-expression.
The popular coffee shop is typically known for its midday rushes, calm lounging and piercing scent of freshly-brewed coffee bean. Since starting its “Open Mic Night at Donkey” events some years ago, the shop’s also been at the forefront of Athens’ open mic scene.
Thursday nights between 8-11 p.m., Ohio University students and local Athenians are set in the shop’s back room to watch people perform poems, songs and other forms of artistic expression. Even with performers lingering over the shop’s relatively loud atmosphere, muted lighting and spectators’ continuous conversation, they seamlessly blend in with Donkey’s laid-back and tranquil feel, while also grabbing the crowd’s attention.
“The spectators really pick up on these moments the quieter the room is,” said Allison DeWitt, the coordinator for “Open Mic Night at Donkey.”
“Even people who are doing homework with headphones in will take them off and listen to a performer who intrigues them,” she noted. “Donkey also offers an open mic that has no alcohol involved. It provides such a different atmosphere than a loud bar. People pay much more attention.”
Donkey is unique in that its open atmosphere draws in people of diverse backgrounds, Dewitt said.
Since DeWitt’s start at Donkey nearly three years ago, she says the shop’s atmosphere has made for some memorable moments in her life. Through her experiences, she’s developed relationships with people through their shared passion for music and poetry.
“I’m constantly inspired and moved by everyone who gets on stage. I’ve made countless friends and acquaintances through my job as well,” said DeWitt. “Open mic at Donkey can be witness to very touching moments of people opening up and sharing their music, feelings, thoughts and opinions with others.”
For performers, Donkey offers a homely warmth that differs from other open mic venues in Athens. The place’s worn hardwood floors, delicately placed art pieces and comforting furniture sets make performers feel as if they’re performing in a place of comfort.
“I love performing at Donkey because Donkey is somewhat like home to me because I’m there pretty much every day,” said Clarke Kellum, a senior at Ohio University studying biology and pre-medicine. “The employees are nice and it’s an establishment that attracts kind and welcoming people. Performing there is really nice because I feel that I can sing as loud as I want without disturbing other people because the open mic area is in the back room and it doesn’t echo.”
Like DeWitt, Kellum said as a performer she’s developed relationships with other artists, many of which have spawned into lifelong friendships through their shared appreciation for singing and self-expression.
“I’ve also been able to meet new and creative people while performing at Donkey,” Kellum added. “There are so many artists in town that aren’t super popular, but I think it’s amazing that people are here writing their own music and having enough courage to get up in front of people to perform.”
Though Donkey Coffee’s open mic nights have steadily gained more popularity, Kellum feels there’s still work to be done. In time, she said, “Open Mic Night at Donkey” could reach out to other organizations for larger events. Eventually, this could garner more attention from local crowds and artists interested in showcasing their talents.
“I feel that they could possibly hold collaborative open mic nights somehow maybe once a month or something,” Kellum suggested. “They could also advertise for each other’s open night mics by having a flyer or two in their restaurants. They could reach out to the (Ohio University) campus as well by partnering with Front Room or Baker Event Services and host an open mic night in Baker theater. That would also help promote the businesses as well.”
In time, DeWitt feels Donkey’s open mic nights will continue to expand and be a place for local artists to indulge in their distinct forms of expression and for audiences to enjoy the city’s hidden talent.