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This American Road

Experience America this summer with Andrew Burmon

Is Providence, Rhode Island the Country's Most Creative City?

Summer in New England is so pleasant and so cliche, I didn't arrive in Rhode Island expecting to find much more than craft breweries, lobster rolls and some wicked good times. And they certainly have those!

But no sooner had I parked the car than I stumbled across a storefront packed with bizarre costumes, alien heads and smiling ogres, looking across the street at City Hall.

What, I wondered to myself as I snapped photos as fast as possible, was going on in Providence?

  • Inside Big Nazo
  • Inside Big Nazo
  • More Big Nazo costumes
  • Full-body suits
  • Inside Big Nazo
  • Inside Big Nazo

I'd inadvertently found the home of Big Nazo, a performance troupe dedicated to the absolutely mind-bending, warming up for an event that evening on Westminster Street at Roots Cafe. Ringleader Minio Pinque introduced himself and started in on the upcoming show calendar for the group, as I gawked at half-finished suits.

A troupe member donned what can only be described as an alien helmet to demonstrate the huge range of costumes Big Nazo uses, everything from enormous full-body get-ups to small masks that jazz up more traditional costuming. Later that evening, a marching band would be coming by to practice for its upcoming engagement with Big Nazo. (One of their numbers was "Crazy in Love.")

The city is of course home to the Rhode Island School of Design, which accounts for some of the creativity in the air. The current show to see is Cocktail Culture, on view until July 31. The exhibit is a fascinating trip from pre-Prohibition days to the Jet Set era, a museum show surprisingly au courant despite its throwback themes. There is only one reference to Mad Men.

Other art spaces proliferate. The aforementioned Roots is a cultural hub, as is Art Space 220, a downtown collective that encourages creativity with shows and funding. Brown has its own spectacles, like a greenhouse filled with exotic plants and open to the public. An over-educated botanist mentioned that the attraction of the moment in the area was the blooming of a corpse flower at the University of Connecticut. 90 minutes away.

The creativity even extends to breakfast. The favorite joint is Julian's on Broadway, with Star Wars action figures in the bathroom and neon signs on the wall. Nobody bats an eye if you order Bloody Marys at 9 am, like a table of eight did, nor a massive breakfast that could feed two, like one big, big guy did. As for me, I did what I always do when in New England. I got the hash.

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