Learn More About Karamu House

Explore the storied legacy of the nation's oldest Black producing theatre

Founded in 1915, Karamu House is a place of joyful gathering (the meaning of ‘Karamu” in Swahili), where people from different races, religions, and economic backgrounds come together through the arts. Recognized as the nation's oldest producing Black theatre, Karamu House is continually cited as one of Cleveland’s top four treasures and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places

History: Founders Rowena and Russell JelliffeKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Founders of Karamu House

In 1915, Russell & Rowena Jelliffe, two Oberlin College graduates opened a settlement house in an area of Cleveland, Ohio called “The Roaring Third.” They set out to establish a common ground where community members of different backgrounds could come together to seek and share common ventures.

Dance: Playhouse Settlement by Karamu HouseKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Original Home - Playhouse Settlement

Pictured is the original Playhouse Settlement (Neighborhood Assoc.) building located at the corner of East 38th Street and Central Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. The Jelliffes soon discovered the arts provided the perfect common ground, and in 1917, plays at the settlement began.

History: Children and PuppetryKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Children's Theatre

The earliest students of drama and music were children performing mostly outdoors on the Grant Park playground nextdoor to the Playhouse Settlement. They also learned the art of puppetry. Pictured are two children preparing marionettes for a puppet show. 

Dance: Gilpin Players (1920) by unknownKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Gilpin Players

In 1920, the Jelliffes sponsored a group of young adults known as the Dumas Dramatic Club. In January 1922, they changed their name to the Gilpin Players, after famed stage actor Charles Gilpin attended one of their rehearsals, complimented their work and left $50 on the stage.

History: Karamu History Original Theatre Building (1923) by Karamu HouseKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Karamu Theatre

In 1923, the Jelliffes began utilizing the corner building adjacent to the Playhouse Settlement lot. The building, known as Karamu Theatre, provided space not only for theatre but also for art, dance and music classes, and daycare. The building was destroyed by the fire of 1939.

History: Shirley Graham (1940) by unknownKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Shirley Graham

The Jelliffes were staunch supporters of Shirley Graham’s work. In 1932 they recommended her one-act play Tom Tom be considered by Lawrence Higgins, an affluent scenic designer who produced for the Stadium Opera in Cleveland. Graham was commissioned to expand her play into a three-act composed opera. Tom Tom became the first produced opera by an African American woman.

History: WPA Charles Sallée (1935-01-01) by Karamu HouseKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Karamu Artists, Inc.

In 1935 Karamu Artists, Inc. was formed to support a group of artists funded through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. This group included artists such as Hughie Lee-Smith, Elmer W. Brown,  Charles Sallée, Jr., William E. Smith, Zell Ingram, and Fred Carlo. In 1942, they held their first major show in NYC- the largest of African American artwork. (Sallée, Charles. Watercolor print. cir. 1935)

History: Karamu Dancers (1940) by Peter HastingsKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Karamu Dancers

In 1940, the Karamu Dancers performed at the World's Fair in New York. Marjorie Witt Johnson was Director of the Karamu Dancers.

History: First Production After The Fire (1940-02-01) by Cleveland Memory ProjectOriginal Source: https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/press/id/9927/rec/2

I Gotta Home

Pictured are Minnie Gentry & Jesse Firse in I Gotta Home, written by Shirley Graham, directed by the Gilpin Players in Feb. 1940. The play was performed at Case Western Reserve University's Eldred Hall Theatre. They were rehearsing this play in the Karamu Theatre at the time of the fire.

History: Langston Hughes Supporting KaramuKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Langston Hughes

Legendary Harlem Renaissance poet and literary artist, Langston Hughes spent his high school years at Karamu. After he graduated, he sustained a lifelong intimate relationship with Mr. & Mrs. Jelliffe and Karamu. Pictured is Hughes in support of Karamu's capital building plans in the 1940s.

History: Building Our New Home (1948)Karamu Performing Arts Theatre

Karamu's New Home

In 1941 the Playhouse Settlement formally changed its name to Karamu House, Inc. Pictured is the groundbreaking ceremony on Feb. 6, 1945 at their new home, located at the corner of E89th Street & Quincy Avenue in the Fairfax neighborhood.

History: Early Childhood Education (1954) by Cleveland Memory Project CollectionKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Early Childhood Education

In 1945 the Karamu daycare center opened and operated in the first two-story building on the Fairfax property. The daycare served nearly four generations of young children before closing its doors in 2016.

History: Exterior Jelliffe Theatre (1950)Karamu Performing Arts Theatre

Proscenium & Arena Theatres

Pictured is the front of Karamu's main stage and black box theatre building. The building's dedication ceremony was held on December 6, 1949. The first stage performance, The Medium starring Zelma George, opened on December 10, 1949.

History: Zelma George and Ruby Dee (1950) by unknownKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Zelma George

Zelma George performed in the opera The Medium at Karamu in 1949. Composer Gian Carlo Menotti was so moved by her performance he invited her to perform it on Broadway in 1950. She was the first black woman to take on a white role. George was more than opera, she was an educator, activist, US Ambassador- a giant nationally and in local Cleveland neighborhoods. Pictured are Ruby Dee & Zelma George.

History: Supporters & Community Influencers (1970) by Library of CongressKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis

Neither Ruby Dee or Ossie Davis ever appeared in a Karamu stage production but both had significant presence and impact in the organization and in the lives of Karamu artists. They often visited for speaking engagements, to instruct master classes, and to  support Karamu's mission. Ossie Davis’ play Purlie Victorious was produced multiple times at Karamu in the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Dance: Theatre Building Grand Opening (1948) by Calvin J. IngramKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Main Building Dedication

The main building's dedication ceremony was held on May 24, 1959. Pictured are the Karamu Dancers and other artists waiting in the wings on Karamu's outdoor stage.

History: Musical Carousel (1959-04-28) by Karamu HouseKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Rogers & Hammerstein's Carousel

Pictured are Director of Musical Productions, Benno Frank & Musical Director, Helmuth Wolfes with the cast of Karamu's 1959 musical production of Carousel. Notables include Robert Guillaume, Minnie Gentry, Beverly Todd, Al Fann, Ron O'Neal, Herbert Kerr and Angela Berry.

History: Musicals and Operas by unknownKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Benno Frank & Helmuth Wolfes

Benno Frank served as Karamu's Director of Musical Productions (1948-1967) and Helmuth Wolfes served as Musical Director (1954-1967). The duo collaborated on more than 35 productions including classic European and American operas. In 1963, Karamu’s opera theatre was the first group outside New York to be invited to perform at the New York Summer Festival in Central Park followed by dinner on Fifth Avenue with Langston Hughes.

Dance: Jamaica (1959-12-30) by Karamu HouseKaramu Performing Arts Theatre


Karamu's longest running production was Jamaica from Sept. 22, 1959 - Feb. 20, 1960. The musical included a large cast of actors, several who went on to be successful professionals. At the end of the production, Mrs. Jelliffe presented a framed acknowledgement of this historic event to the cast for their professionalism, commitment, and success.

History: March on WashingtonKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

March on Washington

Russell Jelliffe and a crowd of community members gather outside Karamu before departing for the March on Washington in August of 1963.  More buses left from Karamu House's parking lot than any other location in the state of Ohio.

Reverend Martin Luther King Press Conference -- Grace Cathedral (1964-05-29)The Bancroft Library

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Cleveland, Ohio multiple times for various purposes. He stopped by Karamu on at least two occasions. Karamu House archive guestbook reflects his signature, dated September 1963. This visit was with Zelma George.

History: Russell and Rowena JelliffeKaramu Performing Arts Theatre

Russell and Rowena Jelliffe

After more than forty-eight years of service to artists, African American culture, American Theatre and the Cleveland community the Jelliffes retired in 1963.

Credits: Story

Tony F. Sias, Karamu House President + CEO
Rockell S. Churby Llanos, Adminstrative Manager + Archive Project Director
Annette Bailey, Administrator (Retired - 49 years of service)
Myles Xavier, 2022 Karamu/Summer On The Cuyahoga Intern from University of Chicago

Photo & Content Credits -
Karamu House Archive; Karamu House Archive Collection - Case Western Reserve University Kelvin Smith Library Special Collections; Russell and Rowena Jelliffe Papers - Western Reserve Historical Society/Cleveland History Center; Cleveland Memory Project; Cleveland Press; Getty Images

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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