Theaters

Karamu House

From its inception in 1915, Karamu House has been a leading performing arts center that provides theater, music, dance, and art classes. Karamu began as a settlement house and has evolved into a full-fledged American cultural center. Karamu has sought to improve relations between the races. The time between the 1910s and the 1940s laid a firm foundation for fulfilling Karamu’s mission. Karamu has given African Americans a vehicle for the expression of their work. Moreover, their theatrical productions have raised awareness of black lives, the black experience, and an awareness of black heritage.

Karamu’s story begins with Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, who founded what was originally called the Neighborhood Association but was later named Karamu House. Karamu is a Swahili expression meaning “places of entertainment or fasting at the center of community.” The Jelliffes realized that the United States was not keeping its promise of the Constitution by not helping minorities. The Jelliffes believed that people of color should have ways of expressing their basic cultural talents. Originally, Karamu opened at 2239 East 38th Street through the Neighborhood Association in 1915. After the fire burned Karamu House down in 1939, it was rebuilt in 1949 at East 89th and Quincy, where it remains to this day.

The Neighborhood Association, or Playhouse Settlement as it was also known, developed as part of a broader movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, which occurred in the 1920s as African Americans came north for better opportunities. Karamu possessed high American values and had lofty goals. Harlem became the largest American urban area to be predominantly Black, and African Americans wished to change their identity and be free from racial oppression. People who performed in the Harlem Renaissance included Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, and Langston Hughes, among many others. Because of the Great Depression, unfortunately, the Harlem Renaissance came to an end, but its influence persisted.

Although the Harlem Renaissance ended, Karamu continued. The Jelliffes wished to liberate Black people from racial stereotypes. The Jelliffes were dreamers and believed that the arts were very important to American life, and interracial art was imperative. Most importantly, the Jelliffes highly prized the principle of “democracy in action.” Karamu was idealized in this way by performing theatrical productions by both Black people and white people. 

Along with the Jelliffes, Charles Gilpin was another very significant force in the development of Karamu. He was a black actor who came to Karamu to perform in a production of “Emperor Jones” by Eugene O’Neill in the 1920s. Karamu’s theatrical troupe was renamed the Gilpin Players to honor him. By performing at Karamu, Charles Gilpin helped advance Karamu’s goals of alleviating social inequality and the promotion of interracial art.

In addition to the efforts of Charles Gilpin, Karamu’s theatrical productions provided and helped further Karamu’s mission. One of the most important productions the Gilpin Players performed was In Abraham’s Bosom, Paul Green’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize–winning play. This play dramatized the theme of the discrimination and the injustices experienced by Black people in the South during the 1920s.

In contrast to the success of In Abraham’s Bosom, the play Stevedore in 1937 was met by adversity. This drama concerned itself about labor fights on the New Orleans wharves and contained ten tension-filled scenes that dealt with the amalgamation of Black and white people to prevent a lynching. Some audience members found the play profound, while others were astonished and emotionally outraged. Stevedore was a very important vehicle for advancing Karamu’s goals. Stevedore is a further example of the theme of Black people fighting the injustice they experienced, and this is expressed through Black American art. 

Although racial themes were addressed In Abraham’s Bosom and Stevedore, perhaps no theatrical productions at Karamu in the interwar years outshone Langston Hughes. Hughes was a poet, actor, and playwright, who was born in Joplin, Missouri, but also lived in Cleveland and New York during the era of the Harlem Renaissance. He was one of the most talented playwrights of his time and was significant in the evolution of Karamu as a theater and a force for social change. In 1935 he produced Mulatto, which was a melodrama that concerned itself with the taboo subject of interracial sex (then often derisively called miscegenation.) Hughes’ play, Joy to My Soul (1937) was performed by Karamu, and it was about a Black oil man who traveled from Texas and who came to the Harlem Hotel to marry the woman he met in a Lonesome Heart column. One theatrical critic of this play from the Cleveland Call and Post proclaimed this play as one of the best written by Hughes.

Although Karamu experienced great success, unfortunately, Karamu House burned down in 1939. Western Reserve University (now CWRU) offered the use of their Eldred Theater for Karamu’s actors and actresses to perform in.  This was an enormous help to Karamu, because its art produced at that time would not be lost. The war years were hard on Karamu, but in the 1950s with the direction of Benno Frank and Reuben Silver, it became known as one of the finest amateur groups in the country. This demonstrates that despite terrible adversity, people can unite and be a force for social change and promote interracial art.

Most importantly, addressing the issues people of color have experienced by communicating through art, has demonstrated the importance of these problems.  People of color have survived a myriad of terrible experiences, despite our American proclamations of commitment to equality. Karamu, offered its audiences, who are people of all backgrounds, to see the integration of African Americans through art. Most importantly, plays produced by Karamu were salient in their contributions to give black people freedom of expression and produce offerings from a Black person’s perspective. Such artistic contributions demonstrate to the public the truth of the reality of black people’s lives and their humility, suffering, and discrimination. Karamu during the 1920s and 1940s was an influential forum for exploring racial themes that defied racial biases and amplified (or elevated) Black people’s perspectives. This formative period fulfilled the Jelliffes’ dream to set the stage for Karamu to remain an essential Cleveland institution.   

Resources

  • Abraham, Dora. Negro Playwrights in the American Theater, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
  • Bedard, Roger L. and Tolch, C. John, eds. Spotlight on the Child: Studies in the History of American Children’s Theater. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.
  • Gleason, Eugene F. “Test of Time Met by Karamu House: Negroes Trained To Be Positive Element in Society.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. December 1, 1940.
  • Kelly, Grace. “Gilpin Players Program Scheduled for March 30 at Karamu.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. June 10, 1927.
  • “Langston Hughes at His Best in Gilpin Players’ Joy To My Soul.” Call & Post. June 1, 1939.
  • McCommon, Morgan. “Gilpin Players.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. case.edu/ech/articles/g/gilpin-players.
  • “Mysterious Blaze Destroys Karamu.” Call & Post. October 26, 1939.
  • “A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. nmaahc.siedu/explore/stories/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance.
  • “New Gilpin Players Program Highly Praised.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. March 30, 1927.
  • “New Gilpin Program is Scheduled for March 30.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. March 20, 1927.
  • Newald, Cora Geiger. “Karamu: 48 Years of Integration Through the Arts.” Typewritten manuscript. Cleveland, 197-? Cleveland Public Library.
  • “Principal Takes Lead in Play by Gilpin Players: ‘The Soon Bright Day’ Opens at Karamu on Wednesday.” Call and Post. April 29, 1937.
  • Pullen, Glenn C. “Karamu Does Hughes’ Play; Vogue’s Revue.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. May 25, 1939.
  • The Role of the Arts in Human Relations (Cleveland: Karamu House, 1965), Cleveland Public Library.
  • Silver, Reuben A. “A History of the Karamu Theatre of Karamu House, 1915–1960.” Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1961.
  • “‘Stevedore,‘ Hailed by Public Great Play, Fought by Clergymen: Protesting Clergymen Admit They Have Not Seen Stevedore.” Call & Post. March 9, 1935.
  • West, Norine A. “Vibrant ‘Tom Tom,’ First Negro Opera.” Call & Post. July 16, 1932.
  • Wright, Kristen. “Realism and Melodrama in Stevedore.” Black Perspectives. AAIHS. July 16, 2020. aaihs.org/realism-and-melodrama-in-stevedore.
2355 E 89th St, Cleveland, OH 44106