The Playgoer: Cleveland's Karamu

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cleveland's Karamu

Nice story in Backstage last week on the happy turnaround in recent years for a company that claims to be the oldest African American theatre in the country: the Karamu theatre of Cleveland.

Founded as a multicultural arts institution in 1915 by two white social workers, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, Karamu House flourished through the 1960s. The theatre, whose name is a Swahili word meaning "place of joyful gathering," remained a multicultural enterprise until the 1970s, when it had evolved into an almost exclusively black venue. By the early 1990s, an economically depressed Cleveland became emblematic of Rust Belt America, Karamu's audience eroded, and some of the city's more talented actors began to hone their skills elsewhere.
A nonequity house, but with a $300,000 budget, the new AD seems to have rescued its reputation in the past few seasons, despite the continuing economic troubles and urban flight of the rust-belt midwest. Not to mention being a black theatre not necessarily reaching out to a white audience.

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