Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Karamu at 50: the gold and black--To be old, gifted and black

Cleveland Press October 26, 1973

Aside from the Cleveland Play House, a professional theater, no Cleveland theater is so well known outside of the city as Karamu, a non-professional theater.

This year Karamu is celebrating its 50th season of theater productions. Actually, all of this began in 1921 but when fire destroyed the theater's home in 1939 there were a couple of years that saw no drama at Karamu.

Karamu was the first and for many years the only integrated theater in the country. As such it was a place where aspiring black actors could break in, could learn their trade in an area where there were few openings for them.

Integrated theater gave way to black theater, to black playwrights who wrote of their experience, their milieu.

Changing with the time Karamu found itself producing many of these black plays, many for the first time almost all for the first time in Cleveland. But while black theater was unique for New York and Chicago it had always existed at Karamu.

Langston Hughes, poet and playwright, had many of his works first performed here. Hughes spent part of his childhood at Karamu and five of his plays had their world premiere on the Karamu stage. In later years he returned regularly, until his death in 1967, to see his scripts produced.

Curiously the production that will open the season is a far older integrated play, Shakespeare's "Othello." And unlike those previous Karamu productions in which blacks and white played all roles interchangeably Othello will be performed in the traditional manner, with a Negro playing the Moor and the other characters played by white actors.

"Othello" will be directed by Karamu's theater director, Reuben Silver.

''Othello" will mark the return of a distinguished alumnus, Clayton Corbin, in the title role. Corbin has appeared in both Broadway and off-Broadway productions, has acted at a number of regional theaters

He was in "Toys in the Attic" with Irene Worth, costarred with Christopher Plummer as the Inca King in "Royal Hunt of the Sun," has played the title roles in both "Macbeth " and "Othello" in major American repertory companies.

Karamu is more than theater. It is a settlement house offering everything from day nurseries to classes in arts and crafts to performances of drama and music.

But from its beginning under Russell and Rowena Jelliffe through to its present administrator, Kenneth Snipes, Karamu has been synonymous with drama.

The first Karamu-produced drama was a bill of three one-act plays staged at East Tech High School in February, 1922.

The plays were "Medicine Show" by Stuart Walker, "Enter the Hero" by Theresa Helburn, "Obstinacy" adapted from the German by Rose Griffiths. They were directed by Rowena Jelliffe who did all the shows until 1946.

The first production in Karamu at E. 38th St. and Central Ave. was in February, 1927: "Off nag's Head" by Donald MacMillian, "Simon The Cyrenian" by Ridgely Torrence, "The Medicine Show" by Stuart Walker.

Paul Green's "In Abraham's Bosom" had its first performance outside New York City at Karamu in 1928. While Eugene O'Neill was still a relatively new playwright Karamu produced "Emperor Jones" in 1931, repeated it at Public Hall.

Though new plays by black writers fill the list of things done at Karamu, there has always been a sprinkling of revivals of the works of the great dramatists -- from Shakespeare to Ibsen, Sophocles to Gilbert & Sullivan.

One of the great performances of all time was that of Zelma George in Gian-Carlo Menotti's "The Medium" in 1949. Later she repeated the role in a Broadway revival of the work. "The Medium" in the Arena and "Family Portrait" in the Proscenium Theater marked the opening of the present theater building.

Throughout the years many established playwrights brought scripts here, either to try them or to do them afresh.

Leo Beyer who wrote "Third Best Sport" brought "Collision Course" to Karamu. Yip Harburg, unhappy with the Broadway production of "Jamaica," saw his done his way at Karamu. William Ingeredid "Loss of Roses" under similar circumstances, an author unhappy with the New York production.

Occasionally Karamu left Cleveland to tour briefly. In the early 1960's there was a European tour of the lyric operas "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and "Red Riding Hood."

Harold Pinter's "Birthday Party" was done at the Boston Winter Arts Festival and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" had an invitational performance as part of Governor Gilligan's inauguration celebration in Columbus.

The name of Clayton Corbin is only one name in a long list of distinguished Karamu alumni.

Ron O'Neal, widely known as "Superfly" and widely respected for his New York stage work, began his acting at Karamu. Gilbert Moses, once a child actor here, is a brilliant young director.

Minnie Gentry is well-remembered at Karamu On Broadway she was most recently seen in "Sunshine Boys" and before that in "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death." That show also was directed by Moses and featured Joe Fields, also of Karamu. Karamu alumnus Nate Barnett was its stage manager.

Ivan Dixon who has appeared in TV's Hogan's Heroes and starred in the movie, "Nothing But A Man," produced and directed 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door," a recent film.

Another gradute is Robert Guiallaume who has sung and acted frequently,in.New York and in Europe. He replaced the Broadway lead in "Purlie," then played the role in a national tour.

There are few theaters, professional or amateur; black or integrated, that can boast as many successful graduates. Karamu's 50 years of theater has enriched theater everywhere as well as in Cleveland.