Karamu House

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Karamu House
Karamu House Cleveland Ohio.jpg
Karamu House
Karamu House is located in Ohio
Karamu House
LocationCleveland, Ohio, United States
Coordinates41°29′37″N 81°37′25″W / 41.49361°N 81.62361°W / 41.49361; -81.62361Coordinates: 41°29′37″N 81°37′25″W / 41.49361°N 81.62361°W / 41.49361; -81.62361
Built-1915 (as Settlement House)
-1941 (renamed as Karamu House)
Architectural styleModerne[clarification needed]
MPSBlack History TR[clarification needed]
NRHP reference #82001368[1]
Added to NRHPDecember 17, 1982

Karamu House in the Fairfax neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, United States, is the oldest African-American theater in the United States. Many of Langston Hughes's plays were developed and premièred at the theater.[2]


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 all races, creeds and religions could find 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 United States. Resisting 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". 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 Kiswahili language meaning "a place of joyful gathering". It is a place where families could gather, share stories, feast, and enjoy. Karamu has a tradition of allowing the audience to meet, and greet actors in a reception line, the "gathering place" extends itself into the community through such face to face encounters.

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.

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 — recruited black actors for their professional productions.,

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 1996-1997 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, playwright and two time Emmy nominee Margaret Ford-Taylor held the position of Executive Director, and Sarah May, Director in Residence.

From October 2003 to March 2016, Terrence Spivey served as Karamu's artistic director.


Though Karamu House has a rich history in the African American theater tradition, it doesn't define itself as an African American theatre. Former artistic director Terrence Spivey defined it as "a multicultural company that produces African-American theatre."[3] Spivey's beliefs are reflected in Karamu's current mission statement. Their goal is to "produce professional theatre, provide arts education and present community programs for all people while honoring the African-American experience."[4]

Langston Hughes involvement[edit]

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'. Once, Hughes even said "if at [any] time [when I am in Cleveland] I can be of any use, if I can give for you a public (or private) talk or reading, or in any way help to raise money locally, I will be only too happy to do so." [5] 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).[6]


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) and In the Wine Time (1987) Don Evans.


On December 17, 1982, Karamu was listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and received an Ohio Historical Marker[clarification needed] on June 16, 2003.

Notable Alumni[edit]


  • 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
  • Margaret Ford-Taylor, (born January 6) - film, television, stage, writer, director, two-time Emmy nominee
  • 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
  • Al Kirk, Broadway and Film Actor "Shaft" "Golden Boy" with Sammy Davis Jr.
  • Dave Connell, Broadway and Film Actor "Great White Hope" Five Films also Arena Stage Resident Actor
  • 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
  • Reyno Crayton (born 8/26/52) performed in numerous Karamu House productions. Additionally, he played Lou Edwards in The Negro Ensemble Production of "The First Breeze of Summer," opening June 1975. In 1975, he won the Clarence Derwent Award and the 1975 OBIE Award, Performance as Lou Edwards in (The First Breeze of Summer).

Visual Artists

  • Charles L. Sallée Jr. (1913-2006) - WPA printmaker, painter and muralist who also worked as an interior designer.
  • William E. Smith (1913-1997) - WPA printmaker, painter and sign designer who was also an art instructor.


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23.
  2. ^ Selby, John (1966). Beyond Civil Rights. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company. LCCN 66-18463.
  3. ^ Kurahashi, Yuko. "Terrence Spivey Energy Source: his tireless efforts are aimed at restoring Cleveland's Karamu House to its historic and artistic mission." American Theatre, Feb. 2009, p. 42+. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.libproxy.newschool.edu/apps/doc/A195583249/ITOF?u=nysl_me_newsch&sid=ITOF&xid=64c822c2.
  4. ^ https://www.karamuhouse.org/about
  5. ^ Fearnley, Andrew. "Writing the History of Karamu House: Philanthropy, Welfare, and Race in Wartime Cleveland." Ohio History, vol. 115, 2008, pp. 80-100. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/ohh.0.0039
  6. ^ Hatch, James Vernon, and Leo Hamalian. 1996. Lost plays of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

External links[edit]