Sunday, July 31, 2011

Karamu House

Zelma Watson George

Located at the corner of Quincy and East 89th Street, Karamu House is the "oldest African American theater company in America." Founded in 1915 by Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, that also means Karamu shares with the Play House the distinction of being the longest continually running theater company in Cleveland.

The theater club at Karamu was originally called the Dumas Drama Club, and later the Gilpin Players after actor Charles Gilpin. In 1941 they adopted the name Karamu, which is Swahili for either "a place of feasting and enjoyment in the center of the community" or the word "pencil" depending on whom you ask.

By the 1950s, Karamu's reputation as Cleveland's "black" theater was firmly established, and had been for decades, premiering originally works by Zora Neal Hurston and once employing Langston Hughes as Playwright-In-Residence -- one of only two to hold that title. However, from the original husband and wife team of the Jelliffe's through the 1950s, the artistic and management directorships were held by whites.
"According to the record, Cleveland is one of the most progressive theatre cities in America."
- Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times
Interracial productions were the order of the day at that time -- in recent days we learned that character actor Roberts Blossom got his professional start at Karamu, and Tedd Burr used to tell me he was half of a couple that engaged in the first interracial kiss on a Cleveland stage though for the life of me I can't remember what show he was talking about.

Zelma Watson George (December 8, 1903 - July 3, 1994) sang the lead role in the opera The Medium for sixty-seven nights beginning in 1949 before the show transferred to Broadway? She returned to Cleveland, performing in The Consul at the Cleveland Play House and turn as Mrs. Peachum in a production of The Three-Penny Opera at Karamu. Later, of course, she was an advisor to the Eisenhower administration, as part of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Armed Forces from 1954 until 1957, and that was just the beginning of an illustrious philanthropic career.
For the record, Karamu House gave me my first professional theater job. I was a member of their youth outreach, Drama/Theatre for Youth Project (D/TY) from 1991-92, traveling Greater Cleveland in a van with four other young actors, performing world folk tales to elementary and middle school students. I also got to play Howard Wagner in Death of a Salesman on the boards of the Jelliffe Theatre. I never got to meet ether of the Jelliffe's in person - Russell died in 1980, but I did attend Rowena's funeral, she died in April, 1992 just a month after her 100th birthday.

Stealing Christmas, 1991
8/1/11 UPDATE: In 1997 the Zelma W. George Recreation Center opened in Luke Easter Park, which is also the site of the annual Unity Day Festival, an annual family-friendly event of fun and music in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, now in its seventh year. On the very evening I published this entry (July 31) George Clinton was headlining the event, when a douchebag with a handgun opened fire, wounding three and killing one.

The shooter remains at large.

African American Registry
Showtime In Cleveland (John Vacha)
The Handbook of Texas Online/Texas State Historical Association

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