Karamu's Century of Star Power

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by David C. Barnett

The roots of the country’s oldest African American theater were planted a century ago on the eastside of Cleveland.  Karamu House was founded as a place to offer artistic opportunities for the hundreds of black migrants from the South, drawn to the city by the promise of factory jobs. 

Broadway and film star Bill Cobbs first took the stage here as an amateur, fifty years ago. He recalls being inspired --- and a little scared --- when he made his Karamu debut.

"There was something magical to me about coming to Karamu House and getting on stage for the first time," he says.  "I think a part of that was having known about the theatre here for so many years and not having the nerve to come and be a part of it."

Poet and playwright Langston Hughes grew-up in Cleveland and later tried out plays on this stage.  Actors like Robert Guillaume and Ron O’Neal were Karamu alumni.  And although the late actor and Cleveland native Ruby Dee never trod the boards at Karamu, she and her husband Ossie Davis supported it with special performances and master classes. In a 2006 interview, Dee reflected on Karamu’s track record in nurturing young artists:

"Karamu was a place for the new talents to go and try out.  These people are the backbone of the kind of thought that changes worlds."

Karamu was a product of the settlement house movement of the early 1900s.  A “settlement house” offered education and social services to the new immigrants from Europe and the American South.  Oberlin College graduates Rowena and Russell Jelliffe established what they called the “Playhouse Settlement” in 1915, aimed at teaching theater skills.  Northeast Ohio actor and director Dorothy Silver was a close friend of the Jelliffes:

"They were the kind of people who were there in the morning when you came in and were there at night, when you left." 

Silver says they made a habit of going against expectations.  For instance, they established mixed-race performances at their theater, years before there was a Civil Rights movement.

"Then, and now," she says,  "Karamu believes in, what was then called, 'alternative casting' --- which means, you get the part if you’re the best person for it.  Period."

The theater was christened “Karamu” in 1927, after the Swahili word for a place of enjoyment or feasting.  Dorothy Silver’s husband Reuben was put in charge of the feast as artistic director of Karamu in 1955 --- a job he held for two decades until he was asked to step down in favor of new, African American leadership, in 1976.

"I thought it was a mistake; it was a mistake for the institution,' Silver says.  "We probably would have stayed there for the rest of our life.  But, I continue to wish them the best."

Actor and director Tony Sias was named President and CEO of Karamu this past September.  He says, "Back at the time in the late 60s-early 70s, there was a shift in the mission to be run for and by African Americans." 

Sias adds that very few theaters were producing work about the black experience, 40 years ago, but that’s really changed, and he wants to develop an even greater diversity.

"When we talk about honoring the African American experience, it’s to say it’s still a part of our focus, but we still have an opportunity to engage the American theater community in a way that is reflective of our country, and the world in which we live in."

The University of Maryland recently published a study that describes a bleak economic landscape facing African American arts organizations.  Theater companies struggle for funding, and new audiences --- especially young ones --- are hard to attract.  Tony Sias says that the challenge is to create and produce theatrical programs that they’re interested in.

A forty-foot mural of Ruby Dee towers over the East 89th street wall of Karamu, speaking not only to her prominence, but to the legacy of a century-old theater.  A theater that’s looking to embrace a new world. 

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