A Visit to the “The Art of Karamu House” at Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage

A Visit to the “The Art of Karamu House” at Maltz
Museum of Jewish Heritage
It seemed like a routine holiday diversity experience or was it? Our AAUW Branch (HHL) along with members of the Cleveland Branch and some prospective members went to an exhibit of outstanding art done by the African American artists of Karamu House (please see the brief history below) at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. Featuring art by African American artists, states the Museum’s mission, (*please see mission statement below), is in part “to build bridges of appreciation, tolerance and understanding with those of other religions, races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds, serving as an educational resource for North-east Ohio’s Jewish and general communities.”
Afterward we met for a potluck get-together at the home of one of our branch’s members. We truly enjoyed each other’s company and food offerings. Requests for favorite recipes were made and holiday greetings were exchanged in abundance. What made the afternoon far from routine was the genuine pleasure many of us experienced in each other’s company. The sincere praise we had for the branch artist who donated a magnificent quilt for our fund-raising auction and the congratulations we extended to the lucky winner of the raffle made the afternoon special. Many of us could identify with the stories of the African American “immigration” to Cleveland and the North in general. Some had parents and grandparents whose lives were enriched by classes at a settlement house and whose lives were forever changed by that experience. It was a fine afternoon for many and seemed only right and natural that we come together in these places on this day. The “right and natural” feeling was perhaps the mark of a successful multicultural and a not so routine educational and personal celebration of the season. In the end we did what just came naturally and it felt good, together in all our diversity and its complexity, richness and wonder.
Best Wishes to All for a Wonderful 2012 and Beyond
Fondly Submitted For the Diversity Committee
A Brief History of Karamu House from The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Karamu House is a neighborhood settlement that became nationally known for its dedication to interracial theater and the arts. It was founded as the Neighborhood Assn. at 2239 E. 38th St. in 1915 by 2 young white social workers, Rowena and Russell Jelliffe, with the support of the Second Presbyterian Church, but it soon was popularly known as the Playhouse Settlement. As an entry into community life the Jelliffes began producing plays with interracial casts in 1917. Their affiliation with the church ended in 1919, when they incorporated as the Neighborhood Assn. In 1920 they sponsored the Dumas Dramatic Club, which was renamed the Gilpin Players, after the noted black actor Charles Gilpin in 1922. A theater was acquired adjacent to the Settlement in 1927 and named “Karamu,” Swahili for “a place of joyful meeting, a name adopted by the entire settlement in 1941. In the 1930s the Gilpin Players established a collaboration with Karamu alumnus Langston Hughes, giving premieres to several of his plays. In 1940 a modern dance troupe from Karamu trained by Marjorie Witt Johnson won the praise of Life magazine for its appearance at the New York World’s Fair. Following a fire which destroyed the theater in 1939, Karamu was eventually rebuilt in 1949, through the aid of Leonard Hanna, Jr., and the Rockefeller Foundation as a 2-theater complex at E. 89th and Quincy. Facilities were also provided for Karamu’s noteworthy programs and classes in dancing and the visual arts. Led in the 1950s by such professional staff members as Benino Frank and Reuben Silver, Karamu gained a reputation as one of the best amateur groups in the country. With the rise of Black Nationalism in the 1970s, however, it embarked upon a controversial course which promoted theatrical presentations primarily by blacks about the black experience and its attempt to form a professional acting company in 1982 proved unsuccessful. In 1960 Marjorie Witt Johnson, together with Karamu artistic director Linda Thomas Jones, founded the Imani African American Dance Co., a troupe which danced to African drum beats, reminiscent of the original Karamu Dancers.
With the appointment of Margaret Ford-Taylor as executive director in 1988, Karamu attempted to return to its multicultural roots as a metropolitan center for all races while fulfilling its “unique responsibility” for the development of black artists. The Karamu’s Drama/Theater for Youth Project was cited for excellence by the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education in 1991 and in 1993 it won the first annual Anne Flagg Award given by the American Alliance of Theater in Education honoring outstanding work in the promotion of multicultural understanding. In May 1994 Karamu joined with BankOne to open the Karamu Community Banking Center within the Karamu complex.
Mission Statement from the Maltz Museum Website: *The Mission of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage is to introduce visitors to the beauty and diversity of that heritage in the context of the American experience. It promotes an understanding of Jewish history, religion and culture and builds bridges of appreciation, tolerance and understanding with those of other religions, races, cultures and ethnic backgrounds, serving as an educational resource for Northeast Ohio’s Jewish and general
communities.
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One Response to A Visit to the “The Art of Karamu House” at Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage

  1. kathe1223 says:

    A really interesting blog post which shares both the the Maltz experience with an understanding of where and what Karamu is. I hope many read it.

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