Karamu House, America’s oldest African-American theater in Cleveland, undergoing $14.5M renovation

Published: Feb. 26, 2020 at 6:14 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - “In 1917 there were two little black boys on the front porch and they asked Mrs. Jelliffe could they come in, and that was the beginning of the integration of the Karamu House,” President and CEO Tony Sias said.

A place where people of diverse backgrounds could come together to master their craft, and train using the arts as a vehicle for social change and personal growth.

A place that’s made its mark in history as the oldest African-American producing theater in the country, celebrating 104 years.

“To breath the life of the ancestors. All the incredible people who have come through Karamu House,” said Sias.

The Playhouse Settlement, founded in 1915 by two Oberlin graduates--Russell and Rowena Jelliffe--originally served Eastern European immigrants.

In the ’30s, the Playhouse Settlement later relocated to East 89th Street and Quincy Avenue, Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood.

Years later, it was renamed Karamu, a Swahili word meaning a “place of joyful gathering.”

The theater is undergoing a $14.5 million renovation that includes a brand new streetscape, a full-service bistro, along with a patio and enclosed outdoor performance stage, in addition to major renovations in the arena theater, lobby, and dressing rooms. But one thing will remain the same.

The “place of joyful gathering” will continue the legacy of educating, training, inspiring and entertaining through the arts, just as those who came before them.

“Karamu House as a cultural arts institution allowed African-Americans to present themselves in an authentic way and we weren’t the caricatures that quite often mainstream presented ourselves, really changing the image of who we were perceived as,” expressed Sias.

Artists like the great playwright, novelist and poet, Langston Hughes, got his start at Karamu.

Hughes, known as the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, had a special relationship with the theater and the Gilpin Players, who produced many of his plays.

“Karamu evolved as the premier training ground for African Americans. When people came here to train at Karamu and went onto New York, or Chicago, or L.A. they got carte blanche because directors and producers knew that these individuals had formal training,” explained Sias.

Actress Minnie Gentry, Terrence Howard’s grandmother, also performed on the stages here. She appeared in several films and popular TV shows. Even Emmy and Grammy award winner Robert Guillaume, of the TV show Benson, graced the stages along with Cleveland native James Pickens Jr., from Grey’s Anatomy, and the great actress, poet and playwright, Ruby Dee.

The first stop of Raisin in the Sun off of Broadway was right on this stage, said Sias. Famous people like Muhammed Ali was one of many who enjoyed the countless performances. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked these halls. Dr. King’s signature was just recently discovered in a theater guest book.

"This is our archive room. So we have all of the items in here from the last 104 years,' explained Karamu House Project Director of Archives Rockell Churby Llanos.

"Charles Gilpin was one of the most popular African-American artists that performed on Broadway. He came here, saw the Dumas Players and thought so highly of their performance, put $50 on the stage and the Dumas Players changed their name to the Gilpin Players,“ said Churby Llanos.

During the Great Depression the federal art project allowed visual artists like William E. Smith, Elmer Brown, and Cleveland’s Charles Sallee to develop their skills and teach at the theater.

Former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, the first black elected mayor of a major city, donated his personal memorabilia to Karamu before he passed away in 1996.

"It’s like opening a new present every day. We really never know what we’re going to get. It’s exciting to continue to learn for our own personal knowledge history that happened in our backyard, " expressed Churby Llanos. Preserving and honoring the past as they move to the future.

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