“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” – Langston Hughes
It’s difficult to overstate the historical significance of Karamu House, an institution visited by the great Martin Luther King Jr. and called “a milestone in the progress of U.S. race relations” by Eleanor Roosevelt. Karamu House is the oldest African-American performing arts center in the country, making it one of the most important historical institutions in Cleveland. In spite of this, it remains on the fringes of the city’s vibrant local theatre scene.
To really know the who, what, where, and why of Karamu House, it’s best to start at the beginning. The institution has existed since 1915 when Oberlin College graduates Russell Jelliffe and Rowena Woodham opened a settlement house at the corner of E. 38th Street and Central Avenue. The duo wanted a space where people of different races, religions, social, and economical identities could come together to share in common ventures. As time progressed, they found that the arts were a common ground that folks of varying identities could get behind.
In the early ‘20s, Cleveland saw an influx of African-Americans migrating from the south. With their arrival in the area, Karamu House began to welcome the African-American community and uplift their narratives. “For the African-American community, Karamu is a place of respite, a welcoming place and a gathering place,” says Aseelah Shareef, director of operations and community engagement. “[It is] a place where the many facets of who we are as a community can be explored and presented. It is our cultural legacy.”
In the 1940s, the settlement moved to Karamu House’s current location on E. 89th St. & Quincy Avenue. The new spot didn’t just thrive in theater, but also in visual arts. In the book Transformations in Cleveland Art, author William Robinson wrote “It was only with the creation of a formal studio art program during the late 1920’s at Karamu house, a program specifically committed to fostering opportunities in the arts, that African-American visibility in the city’s professional art world became pronounced.”
Without institutional backing, black artists in Cleveland wouldn’t have had a space to thrive and grow in their art. Artists such as Elmer Brown, Hughie Lee-Smith, Charles L. Sallee Jr., and William E. Smith all worked with Karamu House and found success. Their realist and surrealist artworks produced African-American protagonists that were not based on stereotypes, but the artists’ lived experience. If you need another example of the importance of Karamu House, just look to one of the institution’s alumnus, Langston Hughes. Hughes attended classes and premiered several plays while at Karamu House.
“It is a cultural shame that a great country like America, with 20 million people of color, has no primarily serious colored theater,” Hughes said when asked about Karamu House. “There isn’t. Karamu is the nearest thing to it.”
Due to its history and impact on the Cleveland’s African-American community, Karamu House is an important institution for many individuals, including the writer of this piece. I am an artist. I am specifically a bisexual, black woman artist. One part of me wishes I could just consider myself to be just an artist without all the identities defining the roles I am considered for and how my writing is perceived. But my work evolves and fluctuates based on my identities. I was able to star in the American premiere of The Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God at Karamu House, and it was an experience that allowed for my identity to not be tokenized but centered.
“I believe that the Karamu House has been a great start for artists who may have the love for a certain art form, but no outlet,” says Prophet Sey, actor and interim technician director at Karamu House. “Like so many before me, Karamu accepted me with no money, no formal education or degree, and without bias or prejudice.”
There are plenty of local theaters that I know should have greater visibility, but it does beg the question as to why the only African-American theater in Cleveland lacks that same visibility outside of the black community. Karamu House as a performance center provides high-quality theater, music, and comedy. Beyond that, it serves as a community hub for events that include student theater, performing art classes, the Urban Black Film Festivals dinner meeting, and Dobama Theatre practices, just to name a few.
The space is truly a multiethnic, diverse hub of creative energy. If you want to truly experience the history and the art of Karamu go and see a show, learn more of the history of Karamu House, and take a look around at the many amazing African-American-centered arts happening in your community.