The Karamu House is the oldest African American theatre in the United States, formed by Russell and Rowena Woodham Jelliffe in 1915. Originally established as the Settlement House, the theatre’s original goal was to serve as a common ground for people of all races, religion, etc., and the performing arts were used as the catalyst for this idea. Though the Karamu has played host to many famous African American writers, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, the Karamu House continues to provide an artistic outlet for those in the Cleveland area today.
Backstory and Context
In 1915, Oberlin alumni Russell and Rowena Woodham Jelliffe founded the Settlement House in Cleveland, Ohio with the intention of creating a space for people of all races, religions, and creeds to come together and find common ground with each other. As the Cleveland area began to see an influx of African Americans in the 1920s, there was some pressure to keep them out of the Settlement House. However, in keeping with their ideals, the Jelliffes pushed against this idea, and as a result, it soon began to attract numerous artistically talented African Americans. As a result, the Settlement House quickly became involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement, and artists of the likes of Langston Hughes began inhabiting its halls.
As the Settlement House continued to provide a space for black artists over the years, it was renamed the Karamu House in 1941, Karamu being a Swahili word with the rough equivalent of “place of enjoyment in the center of the community.” With this wind in its sails, the Karamu House continued to strive for artistic excellence, pushing its dwellers to strive for their own excellence and challenge. The Karamu House continued to sponsor more outreach programs for the community, notably the Drama/Theatre for Youth (now the TOPS program), as well as continuing to serve as a place for performances, such as numerous Langston Hughes plays. Today, in keeping with its long-held history and tradition, the Karamu House continues to serve its community and strive for artistic excellence.