The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)

Karamu House, nation’s oldest Black theater, surges forward in spite of ‘a rough few years’

- By Brenda Cain,

CLEVELAND, OHIO >> Nestled in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborho­od, just east of Downtown in the shadow of the Cleveland Clinic, sits Karamu House.

Recognized as the oldest African-American performing arts institutio­n in the United States, it has served as an incubator for some of the country’s best-known Black artists since it first opened its doors in 1917.

Founded in 1915 by two white social workers, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, it opened as a settlement house, named the Neighborho­od Assn., on E. 38th St., in an area then known as Cleveland’s “Roaring Third” — home to bars, brothels, flophouses and gambling dens.

The Jelliffes wanted to create an environmen­t where people of different races, religions and socioecono­mic background­s could come together to find common ground through the arts. They began producing plays with interracia­l casts in 1917.

Rechristen­ed the “Playhouse Settlement,” it quickly became a magnet for some of the best African-American artists of the day — actors, dancers, printmaker­s and writers all found a place where they could practice their crafts.

In the 1930s, the Playhouse Settlement relocated to its current home at 2355 E 89th St. and 10 years later again underwent a name change — to Karamu House, a Swahili word meaning a “place of joyful gathering.”

The guest book at Karamu reads like a Who’s Who of writers, dancers, actors and producers, the most notable of which was Langston Hughes.

Hughes — one of the most popular writers of the 20th century — grew up in the Central neighborho­od of Cleveland and taught art classes at Karamu while attending Central High School.

The poet, writer and playwright wrote his first play at Karamu — “The Golden Piece” in 1921 — and went on to write and debut several other works on its stage, including a show commission­ed by Karamu in 1961. “The Black Nativity” is still performed annually.

Hughes is quoted as saying in 1961, that “It is a cultural shame that a great country like America, with twenty million people of color, has no primarily serious colored theatre.

There isn’t. Karamu is the very nearest thing to it. My feeling is not only should a Negro theater if we want to use that term, do plays by and about Negroes, but it should do plays slanted toward the community in which it exists.”

In addition to Hughes, other notable Karamu alumni include authors Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry; and stage and screen actors Ruby Dee, Robert Guillaume, Ron O’Neal, Bill Cobbs, Ivan Dixon, Minnie Gentry and more recently, James Pickens (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Imani Hakim (“Everybody Hates Chris”), Debra Byrd (vocal coach and arranger for “American Idol” and “Canadian Idol”).

But it wasn’t that long ago that the 100-plus-yearold theater was in a state of crisis.

In 2015, Karamu faced fiscal issues and a shrinking audience base almost caused it to close its doors for good.

Enter Tony Sias, Karamu’s President and


“There were so many financial challenges when I arrived in 2015. Those first two years were rough,” he recalled.

In 2016, Karamu laid off 15 staffers, including longtime artistic director Terrence Spivey, in a dramatic cost-cutting move. Shortly thereafter, the IRS revoked Karamu’s precious tax-exempt status, saying it had not received a tax return from the nonprofit for three consecutiv­e years. Karamu filed an appeal and the nonprofit status was quickly reinstated. But turmoil and financial troubles persisted.

Sias took a deep dive into operations and in three years had managed to stabilize the theater in what American Theater Magazine called the “most underrated turnaround in theater history.”

Audiences had returned and ticket sales hovered around 80+ percent of house in March 2020. The theater was undergoing a massive renovation, “and we were doing exceptiona­lly well,” Sias said.

Then the coronaviru­s pandemic hit.

“The pandemic did hurt,” Sias says. “But we were good stewards of the government support we received, and we were very intentiona­l about staying on the front lines, so while most theaters were closed down, Karamu was operationa­l and active throughout the pandemic.”

Going virtual, Sias used the observance of Juneteenth as a focal point for a live-streamed production “Freedom on Juneteenth” — that explored key moments in Black history, from emancipati­on to the murder of Emmet Till and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement to the police murder of George Floyd and the growth of Black Lives Matter.

Sias hoped that the production would promote healing, education, and activism in the form of voter registrati­on and other types of civic engagement.

“We used theater as a vehicle — not only to entertain audiences but to educate audiences about the Black experience — and to activate our audiences toward change,” Sias said. “Theater was a means to an end, people were learning in, and through, the arts as a result of the work we were doing in the virtual space.

“Our original goal was to reach 10,000 people and in the first 48 hours, we had reached 50,000 people around the world, so we had definitely exceeded our goal and extended our footprint beyond E. 98th and Quincy. And we had reintroduc­ed Karamu to some, and introduced Karamu to others who were not familiar with who we are.”

Sias believes “central to Karamu’s mission is honoring the Black experience — telling those stories in a myriad of ways that are as diverse and the city of Cleveland.”

This weekend, the theater will premiere a production of “Red Summer.” Conceived by Sias and written by Cleveland playwright Nina Domingue, the play examines the hardships and racial terror faced by African Americans during a summer of racial violence in 1919.

The violence spread to cities across the United States, exacerbate­d by the discharge of millions of military personnel back to their homes and domestic lives following the end of World War I. It runs through March 5.

When looking for the next production, Sias asks two questions: Is it socially relevant? What will the community gain from us producing it?

“One of our core values is ‘joy,’” Sias said. “I think that a part of our responsibi­lity is not to re-traumatize our community, so we are choosing material that entertains, educates and activates people toward a new level of consciousn­ess and change. Many times, the real work is on the other side and we can create a pathway and present material that triggers thought.”

Karamu will not announce its 2023 season until late April, but Sias hints “we will be presenting socially relevant work that will speak to current events and also do two musicals and something that has a comedic edge. And there will probably have a couple of works by local playwright­s, we really want to highlight the works of Cleveland writers. On stage, there will be some new fresh faces on our stage, as well as the foundation of seasoned talent we want to continue to work with.”

Virtual production­s will be put on hold because “people across the board want to be back in person — they want to engage.”

And having patrons back at the theater allows Sias to show off the $4.6 million three-phase renovation­s to Karamu House.

Phase two is nearing completion, which will feature a new Black Box Theater; a Bistro and an outdoor stage, all expected to be completed in May. Phase three will refresh the administra­tive and educationa­l spaces.

“We want to continue to build the Fairfax community,” he said. We want to be the anchor institutio­n and hope we can trigger other developmen­t — small business, housing, and of course, continue to build a thriving arts district here as well.”

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 ?? DAVID PETKIEWICZ — CLEVELAND.COM Karamu House in Cleveland, is the oldest AfricanAme­rican theater in the US. ??
DAVID PETKIEWICZ — CLEVELAND.COM Karamu House in Cleveland, is the oldest AfricanAme­rican theater in the US.

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