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|Location:||Cleveland, Ohio, United States|
|Built:||-1915 (as Settlement House)
-1941 (renamed as Karamu House)
|Architectural style:||Moderne[clarification needed]|
|MPS:||Black History TR[clarification needed]|
|Added to NRHP:||December 17, 1982|
Karamu House in the Fairfax neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, is the oldest African-American theater in the United States. Many of Langston Hughes's plays were developed and premièred at the theater.
In 1915, Russell and Rowena Woodham Jelliffe, graduates of Oberlin College in nearby Oberlin, Ohio, founded what was then called The Neighborhood Assn. at 2239 E. 38th St. establishing it as a place where people of different races, creeds and religions could find a common ground. The Jelliffes discovered in their early years, that the arts provided the perfect common ground, and in  1917 plays at the "Playhouse Settlement" began.
The early twenties saw a large number of African Americans move into an area in Cleveland,from the Southern U.S.. Resisting some pressure to exclude their new neighbors, the Jelliffes insisted that all races were welcome. They used the United States Constitution; “all men are created equal” and pursued their dream. What was then called the Playhouse Settlement quickly became a magnet for some of the best African American artists of the day. Actors, dancers, print makers and writers all found a place where they could practice their crafts. Karamu was also a contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, and Langston Hughes roamed the halls constantly.
Reflecting the strength of the Black influence on its development, the Playhouse Settlement was officially renamed Karamu House in 1941. Karamu is a word in the Swahili language meaning "a place of joyful gathering" or "a pencil". It is a place where families could gather, share stories, feast, and enjoy. Karamu's long standing tradition of allowing the audience to meet, and greet actors in a reception line is Karamu's very own; the "gathering place" extends itself into the community through this face to face encounter.
Throughout the years Karamu has gone through many changes, some profound. With the retirement of the Jelliffes in 1965, and the social shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, Karamu was affected in a number of ways: diminished funds, increasing political and social urgency, and uncertainty of purpose. But audiences still poured into Karamu House. The community was drawn by the energy of a new political and cultural presence for African Americans. White patrons that had served on the board were purged. But a great measure of community support remained. The fervor, the making of history has never waned with this historical, cultural, and fine arts institution, not even in hard times.
The original Drama/Theatre for Youth (DT/Y), now called "TOPS" was modeled after a Colorado program, under the direction of Jeff Gruszewski. DT/Y was formed in 1987, and toured to hundreds of schools in Cuyahoga, Summit, Elyria, Erie, and Lorain counties. The original company consisted of Abdullah Bey, Susan Benson, Renee Matthews-Jackson, David Reichhold, and Jerry Urick. From 1987 to present day, there have been 23 different ensemble tour companies. TOPS is an intricate branch of Karamu's Educational Outreach programming.
Karamu House had developed a reputation for nurturing black actors having carried on the mission of the Gilpin Players, a black acting troupe whose heyday predated Karamu. Directors such as John Kenley, of the Kenley Players, and John Price, of Musicarnival — a music "tent"[clarification needed]]] theater located in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb — regularly recruited black actors for their professional productions.,
Those in the Karamu ranks include some of Cleveland's native-born; Adora &Eric Schmiedl, Al Fann, Al Kirk, Abdul Salaam El Razzac aka Allen Johnson, Angela Winborn, Anthony E. Nickerson-El, Anthony Talley, Asante Jones, Bill Cobbs, Brandi Amin, Brenda Butler, Buddy Butler, Butch Terry, Calvin Knight, Calvin Thomas, Carol Tillery Banks, Caroline Jackson-Smith, Charles Brown, Charles Robinson, Chico, Conni Blair,Dale R. Shields, Daniel Kontar-Gray, Darnell Suttles, Debra Byrd, Desmond Storm E Jones, Dianne Weaver, Don Evans, Dorae Vactor, Doug Jewell,Eddie Baccus Sr. & Eddie Baccus Jr., Eva Withers-Evans, Evelyn Irby, Felton Richards, Gina Taylor, Greg Deltorto, Gwen Frost,Gwen Wright, Hank Marone, Hassan Rogers, Jack Robinson, Jackie Thompson, James Spriggs, Jean"Granny"Hawkins, Jeff & Denise Doggett, JoAnn Hawkins, Joe Lynn, John Lynch, Joyce Meadows, Kalief Haynes, Kathy Bibbs, Kathy Walker, Kenneth Parker, Kenny Bell, Kenny Johnson, Kevin Willingham, Kyle Primous, Larry Bey, Lawerence Maurice, Leroy Jones, Lillie Brown-Oden, Linda Thomas Jones, Lucia, Licia & Chris Colombi, Marcus Dana, Margaret Taylor-Ford Mary Connley-Dismuke, Mary Dorsey, Matthew Dickens, Michael Bell, Sr., Michael May, Michael Metcalf, Mike Malone, "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Morgan Lund, Norma Powell, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Parks Taylor, Pete Robinson, Prestor Pickett, Ray Allmond, Reggie Kelly, Reuben & Dorothy Silvers, Reyno Crayton, Richard Morris, Rick Williams, Robert Williams, Ron Hester, Ron “Superfly” O'Neal, Rosetta Monique, Sandy Bass, Sarah May, Shelia Ramsey, Sheraine Newman, Sherrie Tolliver, Steve Larry, Susan Hughes, Sue H. Johnson, Tony Sanders, Tora Bey, Tracie Rose, Trish Johnson, Tshombe, Tyrone Jenkins, Valerie Robinson, Vanessa Bell- Calloway, Vickie Buster, Wayne Elbert, William & Sandra True, Willie Boyd, Willie Gipson, Willie Goodson, Yvetta, Rezina,
and countless others, far too many to mention...
In 1931, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston were negotiating with the Jelliffes to produce 'Mule Bone', their two act collaboration, when the two writers "fell out". A series of conversations between the Hughes and Hurston estates, the Ethel Barrymore Theatre presented the world premiere of Mule Bone on Broadway in 1991. Finally, sixty-five years after the production was originally proposed, Karamu House presented MULE BONE (THE BONE OF CONTENTION) as the '96-'97 season Finale. Karamu's production, directed by Sarah May, played to standing room only audiences in the Proscenium (Jelliffe) Theatre. The by-line in The Plain Dealer, as the Cleveland theatre season came to its end read:"Karamu returns to Harlem Renaissance status". Critic Marianne Evett shared Karamu's success story as the Theatre began to recover from past hardships. The revival Karamu House needed so desperately had arrived. During this time, Margaret Ford-Taylor held the position of Executive Director and Sarah May, Artistic Director.
Since October 2003, Terrence Spivey has served as Karamu's artistic director. Since his arrival, Karamu has again risen to an unexpected pace artistically with the constant challenge of daring and provocative works for artist and audience alike. Karamu House Performing Arts Theatre continues to be one of American History's greatest treasures.
 Langston Hughes involvement
Langston Hughes had a special relationship with Karamu Theatre. Born in St. Louis, Hughes early life moved to Cleveland, where he attended Karamu programs and classes; after he left Ohio, he kept in touch with the director, Rowena Jelliffe, and the Gilpin Players, who produced a number of his plays, including the premiers of 'When the Jack Hollars [sic] (1936), 'Troubled Island' (1936), and 'Joy to My Soul'. In an interview with Reuben Silver of Karamu, Hughes said: "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 theatre, 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. It should be in a primarily Negro community since that is the way our racial life in America is still...It should not be a theatre that should be afraid to do a Negro folk play about people who are perhaps not very well-educated because some of the intellectuals, or "intellectuals" in quotes, are ashamed of such material" By 1940, according to Hughes's biographer Arnold Rampersad, "Langston consigned all his skits and sketches, divided into three classes--Negro Social, Negro, Negro Non-Social, and white--to his agent, who had alerted him that Cafe Society, a novel interracial cabaret founded in New York by Barney Josephson, was planning a revue. Hughes sent twenty skits, collectively titled 'Run, Ghost, Run'. He also sent a copy to Karamu; there is no record that the revue was staged there or anywhere. Three of those skits appear here in print for the first time, and these three may have been produced by the Suitcase Theatre (135 performances), at different times Hughes added to the program a short satirical skit: 'Limitations of Life', or 'Little Eva'...(331-332).
 Recent Operations
Karamu offers art experiences for people of all ages through a variety of programs. The three primary program areas are the Early Childhood Development Center, the Center of Arts and Education, and the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre.
Sharon Williford (Actress/Singer) was groomed by Karamu. She appeared in Singin' and Shoutin' (Mike Malone) , First Breeze of Summer (Leslie Lee) In the Wine Time (1987) Don Evans.
 Notable acting alumni
In addition to earlier-mentioned names, Karamu's acting alumni come from all races and include:
- Bill Cobbs (born June 16, 1934) - film, television, stage, directing, master workshops
- Minnie Gentry (1915–1993) — a Broadway, film and television actress
- Robert Guillaume (born November 30, 1927) — a film, stage and television actor best known for starring — in the late 1970s–mid 1980s — in the television situation-comedy series Soap and its spin-off series Benson
- Dick Latessa (born 1929) — a film, stage and television actor who won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for his role in Hairspray
- Ron O'Neal (1937–2004) — an actor, film director and screenwriter who appeared in many blaxploitation films in the 1970s
Vaness Bell-Calloway born in 1956. Vanessa performed in Karamu's theater and modern dance departments. She earned a spot in the chorus of the Broadway musical, Dream Girls, advancing to countless film and television productions.
-  www.karamuhouse.org, official website Karamu House
- , Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland History/Karamu
- , African American Registry
- , Karamu House By Sandy Mitchell, About.com Guide
- , Case Western Reserve Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
 Works about Karamu