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Leon Bibb reports | Karamu House's past lends to its exciting future

At the corner of Quincy Avenue and E. 89th Street, this theater reflects the black experience.

CLEVELAND — The men are at work. Building a house here. Not a whole house. Just its front.

This is work in the land of make-believe. You are behind the scenes in the prop shop where make-believe is made. This is theater. And you are backstage at Karamu – long a Cleveland gemstone and oldest of theaters dealing with black culture in the United States.

With years of a theatrical and artistic background under his belt, Tony Sias is Karamu's chief executive officer. Karamu – the word comes from the Swahili language and means "a place of joyful meeting" -- has been joyful since 1915. That was when Russell and Rowena Jeliffe began a settlement house to help immigrating Europeans establish themselves in Cleveland. But in the late 1920s...

"At the point that the migration -- the Great Migration -- of African-Americans from south to the north began, they continued to evolve as the community evolved in terms of being inclusive of all," Sias said.

At the corner of Quincy Avenue and E. 89th Street, this theater reflects the black experience. Many artists have worked this stage and moved to national prominence. Karamu sings of them. Among them, there was poet Langston Hughes.

"But I do think there are people that have not gone on to have household names that have really invested into the institution," Sias said. 

Professional Karamu. But also educational Karamu; teaching ins and outs of onstage and backstage. Karamu can be a launchpad for local people sharpening their theater chops. An old building on an old mission, but also sporting a newness for the audience.

There are plans for major expansion and community growth. But Karamu knows its bread and butter is always the stage. In its smaller theater are preparations for an upcoming production. Designers are pulling together the scenery which plays a key role.

"The set winds up being one of the characters so you want the case to be able to interact with the characters," said Prophet Seay, scenic designer. 

"Step away from everyday life and come in and create and imagine," Sias added.

Flowing across the stage of make-believe can be impressions of real life. Cleveland's Karamu tells stories, especially of the black experience. Take a seat in the subdued light of the audience and watch on a lighted stage the ever-changing world as Karamu takes its bow.