Nation's Oldest Black Theatre Restores Its Luster

In the late 1990s, Cleveland's Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, the nation's oldest African-American theatre, was foundering and rudderless. Audiences were dwindling, critics stopped attending, and actors were shunning auditions. The theatre that helped nurture the careers of such playwrights as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorraine Hansberry and actors like Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Robert Guillaume, and Anthony Chisholm was on the verge of closing its doors.

Enter Terrence Spivey, who took over as artistic director with the 2003–04 season. In four years Spivey has brought life back to Karamu. That he has done so with a modest annual budget of $300,000 is even more impressive.

Prior to coming to Cleveland, Spivey lived as a self-described struggling actor in New York, working mostly Off-Off-Broadway. He made his directorial debut at the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey in 1999; in 2001 he became founding artistic director of the Powerful Long Ladder theatre company in East Harlem. In spring 2003 he was asked to direct The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show at Karamu, and the following fall he was named artistic director.

Spivey, 43, is well-versed in the history of black theatre. Further, the company's actors say his passion for the dramatic arts and for Karamu has been contagious. For his part, Spivey says he hopes to use that energy to accomplish his principal goal: to restore Karamu's reputation as America's premier black theatre.

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.

When Spivey took over, the theatre had not had an artistic director for close to 10 years. The programming was random and safe, the acting mediocre. Under his leadership, according to critics, the plays chosen are more thought-provoking and the acting has improved. Spivey made a splash with his critically acclaimed production of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf in 2004, and he has continued to challenge audiences with bold choices such as John Henry Redwood's No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs (2004), Thomas Gibbons' Bee-luther-hatchee (2004), George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (2006), and Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain (2006).

Spivey says he is also working on restoring the theatre's training program for actors and returning to a policy of colorblind casting, in which he strongly believes.

Karamu is a non-Equity house, but the actors and production team receive a small stipend per production, $150–$300 for plays and $400 for musicals. Since Spivey's arrival, actors, both union and nonunion, have expressed renewed interest in the theatre. His goal is to use two or three Equity performers per season. But, he says, "This isn't about Equity or non-Equity; it's about doing good theatre."

Richard H. Morris Jr., Karamu's technical director, has been at the theatre since 1979, when he was 14. Before Spivey arrived, he says, Karamu had lost its base of very good actors, but now they are returning: "The auditions have gotten better. We've gotten better actors." To attract more union performers, the theatre will need to raise more money, Spivey says, and next season he will try to entice sponsors for each show. With more Equity actors, he adds, Karamu can attract more funding.

One of those actors is E.B. Smith, an Equity member who played the title role in August Wilson's King Hedley II, Karamu's closing production this past season. Smith loved working for Spivey, he says, because the director's candor is unsurpassed: "He's got a wonderful sense of people and an enormous work ethic."

Anne McEvoy is a professional non-Equity actor who has worked with the Great Lakes Theater Festival, a LORT company in Cleveland, as well as nonunion houses in the area. Her first job at Karamu came this past season, in Gibbons' Permanent Collection, which Spivey directed. Since he arrived at the theatre, she says, the buzz in the local acting community has been that Karamu is back.

Equity candidate Katrice Monee Headd doesn't earn points toward union membership when she performs at Karamu, but it's a sacrifice she is willing to make to continue working with Spivey. Trained in musical theatre, Headd says Spivey has helped her grow as a dramatic actor. Someday she'd like to go to New York or Los Angeles, but for now she is happy in Cleveland, building her résumé and doing theatre at Karamu. "Karamu is like family," she says.