The Karamu House

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The oldest existing African cultural institution in America, the Karamu House, is located in the heart of the African American community in Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded in 1915 by Russell and Rowena Jelliffe and known as the Neighborhood Association Settlement House until 1939, when it was renamed the Karamu House. Karamu is a Kiswahili word that means, among other things, “a place of joyful meeting.” Since its inception, the Karamu House has been committed to offering children the opportunity to engage with one another and participate in cultural performances enhancing experiences of their own culture. One of the Karamu House's most successful activities has been its Children's Theatre.
The success of its Children's Theatre inspired the Karamu House to create the Dumas Dramatic Club for adults in 1920. Then, in 1922, a major dramatic actor of the time, Charles Gilpin, met with the group and suggested that they take themselves seriously and make the Karamu House the best “Negro” theatre in the world. Gilpin began his career as a singer and dancer in minstrel and vaudeville shows and then moved on to work in the legitimate theater. He is best known for his performance from 1920 to 1924 in the title role in Emperor Jones, for which he won the Drama League Award and the Springarn Medal (NAACP). He also was honored with being named Crisis magazine's Man of the Year in 1921.
The drama club accepted the challenge of this accomplished thespian and renamed themselves the Gilpin Players. The Gilpin Players then sought real-life African American dramas written by African American playwrights. In the late 1920s, the Karamu House was the only theatre producing plays written and performed by African Americans. The theatre group did not have far to look for serious African American playwrights, as it was around the corner from the childhood home of the future poet laureate Langston Hughes, who took part in the early activities of the Karamu House. Hughes was among the first children to participate in the arts program at the Karamu House, and he and the Jelliffes came to know each other well. When Hughes returned to Cleveland as an adult, their association enhanced his career as well as the reputation of the Karamu House. The years between 1936 and 1939 came to be called the “Hughes era,” as the Gilpin Players performed six Hughes plays at the Karamu House: Mulatto (1935), Troubled Island (1936), Little Ham (1937), Soul Gone Home (1937), Don't You Want to Be Free? (1938), and Front Porch (1938).
Over the decades, the Karamu House has expanded, and it now offers the community such programs as children's storytelling; family activities; theatrical productions on the main stage; improvisation sessions; costume and set design workshops; writing classes, including scriptwriting; speech and diction lessons; an after school cultural arts and education program; classes in African drumming, African dance, tap, and modeling; and other cultural activities.

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Further Reading

  • Karamu House. (1991). 75th Anniversary Souvenir Book. Cleveland, OH: Author. This is both a historical analysis and a commemoration of one of the oldest African American cultural institutions.
  • Mitchell, Loften. (1975). Voices of the Black Theatre. Clifton, NJ: James T. White. This text identifies some of the leading figures and major players in the creation and development of the Karamu House.
  • Selby, John. (1966). Beyond Civil Rights. Cleveland, OH: World. This is one of the most comprehensive texts on the early history of the Karamu House.
  • Williams, Mance. (1985). Black Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s: A Historical-Critical Analysis of the Movement. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Williams provides invaluable insights on the black theatre movement of the 1960s and 1970s.