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Dream on East 89th Street


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Dream on East 89th Street

  1. 1. {Arts & EntErtAinmEnt} Æ | | | | | | | | | | | | | | Edited by Jacqueline Marino Dream on East 89th Street Karamu House’s Terrence Spivey, actor, director, historian, mime, visionary and Texan, wants to return Cleveland’s legendary black theater to its old glory. By Christopher Johnston I t’s summer camp at Karamu land School of the Arts, says she’s learned a “This theater is not just a theater,” House. In one corner of the base- says Karamu House artistic director lot about mime this summer. “I also didn’t ment dance rehearsal space, Ter- Terrence Spivey. “It’s the Smithsonian know anything about Karamu House until rence Spivey, a muscular man with a puka of black theater.” Mr. Spivey told us all about it,” she says. shell braided into his dreadlocks, sits on a Spivey makes sure the students know that stool, reflected in a wall of mirrors and sur- Karamu House is the oldest African-Amer- rounded by more than 30 children ranging Several kids raise their hands. ican cultural institution in the country — in age from 5 to 15. He dips his fingers into “You can’t worry about putting on lip- and they now have a place in it. Karamu a small tub of white clown makeup and stick then,” he chides, “because it’s not launched the careers of Langston Hughes, smears it on his left cheek and jaw. about man or woman, it’s about theatri- Ossie Davis, Robert Guillaume, Ruby Dee The boys giggle as he traces red lipstick cality. It’s theater. It’s art.” and Zora Neale Hurston. Now it’s poised to around his mouth, and Spivey booms: On her way out of Spivey’s mime class, launch the next generation of black play- “Who wants to study the arts seriously?” Ashley Strother, 15, a student at the Cleve- wrights and actors. 50 O C T O B E R 2 0 0 5 | w w w . c l e v e l a n d m a g a z i n e . c o m jerry mann
  2. 2. {Arts & EntErtAinmEnt} | | | | | | | | | | | | | | Such a notion, just a few years ago, ist Norma Powell told Spivey about Mel il Rights era, however, Karamu began to would have seemed highly unlikely for Stewart, who went from Karamu to “All lose some of its sparkle as theater oppor- the historic theater. Since falling on in the Family,” “Roots: The Next Genera- tunities opened for African-Americans hard times in the 1980s, Karamu’s once- tions,” and “Made in America.” throughout the country. The pioneering groundbreaking productions had be- “This theater is not just a theater,” Spiv- community theater also struggled with come shoddy and safe. Enter Spivey, an ey says. “It’s the Smithsonian for black the economic challenges of operating energetic up-and-comer fresh from New theater.” in Cleveland, which was being devastat- York. He’s already enhanced Karamu’s At its beginning in 1915, a pair of ed by urban sprawl. By 1997, when Ger- educational and internship capacities by, Oberlin graduates, Russell and Rowena ry McClamy, Karamu’s executive direc- among other things, holding tor, took over, the theater had this summer camp and forming almost closed down. McClamy a repertory company called MU concentrated her efforts on re- Rep. (MU is how alumni affec- gaining economic viability, and tionately refer to the theater.) didn’t look for a new artistic di- Standing in the basement rector. (Her predecessor, Mar- hallway after class, the 41-year- garet Ford-Taylor, had served old Spivey is still in full mime both roles.) makeup, still talking theater. But when a young, black the- “These kids are so hungry,” ater artist in New York began to he says. “We want to bring more query her via e-mail about the of them into the arts here, so whereabouts of former alumni they can continue their train- such as Ron “Superfly” O’Neal ing on a different level. I want and make suggestions to im- them to have pride in Karamu, prove the marketing copy on pride in themselves and pride in Karamu’s Web site, McCla- Cleveland.” my’s interest was piqued. Im- In October 2003, after 20 years pressed with Spivey’s knowl- in New York, Spivey came to edge of black theater, including Cleveland with one objective: re- “Knowing who started Karamu, she hired him to di- establish Karamu’s reputation as America’s premier black theater. there and what they left rect “The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel This month, Karamu kicks off its 90th season — and sec- behind, and knowing I’m Show” for the 2002-03 season. While he was here, she took ond full season with Spivey at the helm — with a play that walking in the same trail him around to meet the board and staff. reflects the theater’s original multicultural mission: a female they walked drives me to lift “Everybody liked him,” Mc- Clamy recalls. version of “The Odd Couple” up Karamu,” Spivey says. Spivey’s easy to like. Quick (Oct. 14-Nov. 6). Neil Simon with a smile or laugh, his in- penned the female take on this tense passion about all things famous comedy in 1985. Woodham Jelliffe, opened The Playhouse theatrical is contagious. “All he talks about “I wanted to celebrate the multicultur- Settlement, where people of all races, re- is theater,” McClamy sighs. al casting, first thing,” says Spivey, who ligions and socioeconomic backgrounds Reverent of the hallowed halls where is choosing actors for the parts based on could engage in the arts together. Locat- “every brick has a story,” Spivey knows their talent, not their race or sex. ed at East 38th Street and Central Avenue what he wants to achieve. “I’m not about After a good day at camp, Spivey relax- in Cleveland’s “Roaring Third” district, sitting on the porch and barking; I want es in the conference room near the lobby. the Playhouse Settlement quickly estab- to run with the big dogs,” he says, his fists Seated in a plush leather chair next to the lished a reputation for innovative theater, stirring the air around him. fireplace, under the portrait of early bene- thanks to the resident Gilpin Players. As a theater student at Prairie View factor Leonard C. Hanna, Spivey spends After a mysterious fire destroyed the A&M in Houston, Spivey first learned of the next three hours detailing his goals for theater in 1939, the Jelliffes moved it to its the Karamu legacy one night while de- Karamu. His talk, however, is peppered current location at East 89th Street and vouring several chapters in his Acting 101 with frequent digressions into his first Quincy Avenue. Spivey says that many ce- textbook. In a section about four promi- love, black theater and film history. He lebrity actors of the period such as Danny nent African-American theaters, he came rattles off entire casts, directors and cast- Kaye and Katharine Hepburn were moved across a photo of one of his heroes, Ron ing agents of plays and films he’s seen. to send donations. By 1941, the nation’s O’Neal, as Othello in a Stratford-on-Avon He talks about the theater’s exten- only integrated theater had gained a pre- production. O’Neal, he read, had started sive collection of memorabilia, including dominantly African-American focus, so at Karamu. And so Spivey found a new photos of Sidney Poitier and Earl Billings, resident actress Hazel Mountain Walker inspiration for his budding stage career. who went on to appear in “Crimson Tide” suggested changing the name to Karamu, “Terrence brought skills I’d never seen and other films. On trips back from New a Swahili word that means “a place of joy- in a young man, along with his persever- York, Langston Hughes used to stay in the ful gathering, center of the community.” ance and desire to achieve whatever he set room Spivey now uses as an office (It used Throughout its first five decades, his mind to,” recalls C. Lee Turner, Ph.D., to be an apartment). Veteran Karamu art- Karamu flourished. In the post-Civ- theater arts coordinator at Prairie View. 80 O C T O B E R 2 0 0 5 | w w w . c l e v e l a n d m a g a z i n e . c o m jerry mann
  3. 3. {Arts & EntErtAinmEnt} | | | | | | | | | | | | | | His ability to act, sing, mime and tap can-American Playwrights. In 2001 he certainly helped lead to his job there, Mc- dance propelled him into numerous lead became founding artistic director of the Clamy says she also liked that he had con- roles, Turner says. His Prairie View class Powerful Long Ladder theater company in nections to successful, contemporary Afri- became the first black college troupe in- East Harlem. can-American playwrights, actors and di- vited to perform at Kennedy Center for Spivey also worked odd jobs, including rectors. Bringing them to Karamu is part the Arts in Washington, D.C., where Spiv- as a doorman at a Midtown movie the- of the plan to upgrade the level of produc- ey danced and sang in “Don’t Bother Me, I ater that housed many premieres. There, tions and rebuild the theater’s audience and Can’t Cope,” a musical revue about the Af- he met everyone from Robert De Niro to national reputation. At a recent audition rican-American experience. Wesley Snipes. Spike Lee didn’t say much for the new season, Spivey was stunned by Spivey also earned a reputation for be- when Spivey handed him his head shot the lineup of Equity and non-Equity actors, ing a walking encyclopedia of black the- postcard. But the next day, he received a including Case MFA students and Great ater. When theater students needed to do call from Lee’s casting agent and ended up Lakes Theater Festival actors. “We certainly research, Tuner says, their first stop was in an Anita Baker video. had a lot more and a higher quality of ac- not the library, but Spivey. “If I see some- Film was actually Spivey’s first love, tors than last year,” he says. thing I’m interested in, I do research,” thanks to his mother, Lillian Cole, who Staging the works of the hottest new Spivey explains. still lives in Houston. Cole would load her playwrights in America is another part of His former professor is not surprised five children onto a bus every Saturday to the plan. at his early successes at Karamu, either. see the exploding cinematic phenomenon “If Terrence Spivey weren’t at Karamu, “That’s just typical Terrence,” he says. “He of “blaxploitation” and martial arts mov- I would not be interested in Karamu,” says works, works, works untiringly.” ies. “We went to almost every one of those Gregory S. Carr, an emerging St. Lou- Seeking the ultimate theater experi- movies in the ’70s,” Cole remembers. is playwright whose “Johnnie Taylor is ence, Spivey moved to New York after In high school, Spivey dreamed of a Gone” was a surprise hit of Karamu’s past graduation. He performed in plays when life in film, but trod the boards instead. season. “He believes in supporting young he could, and honed his skills, including His deepening love of theater led him to writers and giving them a voice.” The two studying tap dance with Henry Le Tang Prairie View, where he first encountered correspond by e-mail at least once a week. and the Meisner acting technique with Karamu. “Knowing who started there By most accounts, Spivey’s partial season William Esper. His first playwriting ef- and what they left behind, and knowing in 2003-04 and first full season in 2004-05 fort, “Smokestack Lightnin’, ” about a ’50s I’m walking in the same trail they walked were successes. In April 2004, the Cleve- Southern juke joint, was a finalist for the drives me to lift up Karamu,” he says. land Theater Collective (CTC) nominated 1998-99 Theodore Ward Prize for Afri- While Spivey’s veneration of Karamu Karamu for a theater renaissance award, 84 O C T O B E R 2 0 0 5 | w w w . c l e v e l a n d m a g a z i n e . c o m
  4. 4. {Arts & EntErtAinmEnt} | | | | | | | | | | | | | | and in August, it won the Black Theater as competition, but in today’s tight eco- sweat, some will smile, some will get up- Network (BTN) Pathfinder Award for nomic climate, more Cleveland theaters set and walk out,” he says, shrugging his Contributions to Black Theater. This Au- are collaborating to share costs and foster broad, dreadlock-draped shoulders. “But gust, CTC nominated Karamu for three a unified theater community. Spivey says no matter how you feel, you’re going to awards. Nina Dominque won best actress there’s plenty of room for everyone. talk about it, share it with someone else, for her performance in Karamu’s pro- Spivey’s returned to the past for this sea- and that’s what we want. So this piece is duction of “For Colored Girls Who Have son’s theme, Raising the Roof Revivals, a going to be a big, big thing.” Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is selection of plays previously performed at The play Spivey loves most this season, Enuf.” Karamu (except for “The Odd Couple”). however, is “Dream on Monkey Moun- Though he has received an abundance Each reflects an aspect of Karamu’s ongo- tain” (April 28-May 21), which he will di- of glowing press since his arrival, and au- ing mission. “Black Nativity” (Dec. 9-30) rect. Spivey will employ Karamu’s resident diences in general were up 50 percent last will celebrate its 20th anniversary as the dance company led by Michael Medcalf season, according to his accounting, Spiv- theater’s holiday heart-warmer. “The Col- and will use drums, stilt-walkers, masks ey did take some blows from local critics ored Museum” (Jan. 27-Feb. 19) examines and colorful costumes to heighten the for the show he directed in April, “Split some of the distinctive characteristics of play’s magic realism. Second.” Most of the criticism centered on the African-American community “un- “It’s a very heavy piece about a man the uneven performances of the actors. “I der the microscope,” while “Before It Hits searching for himself and his racial identi- can’t hit home runs every time,” he says. Home” (March 10-April 9) zeroes in on ty, which even extends to how light or dark Last season, Spivey was one of seven one serious issue: seemingly heterosexual his skin is,” Spivey explains. He witnessed playwrights who wrote Great Lakes The- men who maintain homosexual relations that friction firsthand while working in ho- ater Festival’s educational outreach play, “on the down-low.” tels in New York, where many of the work- and in May, he will participate in the “That play gets back to how some of us ers were from Jamaica, Haiti or Africa. Cleveland Play House’s new FusionFest. within the community are in denial or are “He knows; he pays attention,” says “Terrence is great within the African- ignorant about having safe sex,” Spivey says. Glenngo King, his friend and mentor in American community, but he’s also reach- “This is a very real epidemic that we New York for 20 years. ing out to other professional theater com- have to reveal and bring out,” he continues “I told Terrence that restoring Karamu’s panies,” says Charlie Fee, producing artis- in a defiant tone his predecessors would fine tradition would be just about as won- tic director for GLTF. “So it was fantastic to have admired. “We can’t play it safe.” derful a thing as he could do,” says author have him work with us.” In the past, most A realistic idealist, Spivey expects a James V. Hatch, another of Spivey’s New artistic directors considered other theaters range of audience responses. “Some will York mentors. “He agreed.” n 86 O C T O B E R 2 0 0 5 | w w w . c l e v e l a n d m a g a z i n e . c o m