Karamu House premieres play connecting the racial terror of 'Red Summer' to today
Recognizing gaps and omissions in history lessons, Karamu House in Cleveland premieres an original play Friday looking back at the Red Summer of 1919, when racial terror took hold in cities across America.
“It’s a subject that a lot of people don't really know a lot about,” said Nina Domingue, the playwright and co-director of “Red Summer.”
The play is a continuation of Karamu House’s social justice series, following the productions of “Greenwood: An American Dream Destroyed” and “Freedom on Juneteenth,” and was conceived by Karamu CEO Tony Sias, who also co-directed the production.
“Red Summer” connects current issues to the Red Summer of 1919, when white mobs claimed Black lives in at least two dozen cities across the U.S.
“I’m very interested as a writer in examining the circumstances surrounding an event,” Domingue said. “What set the stage for this to be able to happen like this?”
In doing research for the play, she said it was “eerie” to see connections between the types of major events happening a century ago and current issues. In 1919, for instance, WWI had recently ended and there was a global pandemic.
It was also notable, Domingue said, what was and wasn’t written about the Spanish flu crisis.
“The war ended, so we're going to talk about that, and we're not going to talk about these people dying,” Domingue said about the sentiment she noticed through her research.
Karamu’s “Red Summer” weaves together stories from the past and present, showing how people wrestle with how to respond to issues then and now.
“When I began to look at the way the deaths of Black trans women have been ignored, it's like, ‘Yes, we are fighting to make sure that we all stay alive, but we can't talk about that yet,’” Domingue said.
In addition to the serious subject matter, there’s also hopefulness in the play.
“There's a character in the show, Ms. Sheila, who is the elder, who has to come in at one point and talk to the young people and tell them, ‘Hey, you can't get discouraged because something didn't go your way today or last week or last year. You have to keep fighting,’” Domingue said.
In writing that character, she said she drew upon the memory of her grandmother.
“She was 94,” Domingue said. “To live from Jim Crow to seeing (Barack) Obama become president, like the number of changes and fights and wars and everything that she lived through and endured, and (she) remained kind and loving.”
“Red Summer” is onstage through March 5 at Karamu House in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood.