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Dark Days for the Black Arts 

The theater at Karamu House has enjoyed a resurgence. But can it weather the infighting that threatens to destroy it?

Terrence Spivey still recalls his first visit to Cleveland back in January 2003, when he had been hired as guest director of Karamu House Theater's staging of Little Tommy Parker. The production manager picked him up at Hopkins Airport and delivered him to the East Side of town.

"We turned the corner of 89th and Cedar," the Texas native remembers. "I saw the Karamu House sign, and I was almost in tears. My stomach dropped. I went, 'This is the place I learned about as a student — and now I'm directing here.' I hadn't felt that excitement since college, when we were in the American College Theater Festival at the Kennedy Center."

It wasn't the drab red brick building — an unbecoming cross between a rundown office and a 1960s-era elementary school, with its linoleum-tiled corridors and vague odor of disinfectant — that got the New York City theater maven so excited. It was the history attached to Karamu that made it sacred ground to him, and it was that same history that beckoned him to stay.

With roots dating back to 1915, Karamu is the nation's oldest multicultural theater with an African-American focus. But the theater is only one aspect of several functions of Karamu House, which also includes daycare, after-school care, and educational programs for adults and children. As the theater's glory years faded in the '70s, due in large part to the increased openness of better-funded mainstream theaters to feature black-oriented plays, those other programs threatened to eclipse — perhaps even erase — the theater as a prime driver of Karamu.

Spivey arrived on the scene like a hurricane, and by almost unanimous opinion he has restored much of that former luster. But as he completes his ninth year with Karamu, Spivey has seen internal conflicts threaten to derail his accomplishments — battles between administrators over how the place should be run, disputes over where the institution's priorities lie, and concerns that the man in charge of it all is trying to implode Karamu's most prized attributes: the theater and Spivey himself.

The story of Karamu House is almost a foundational myth in Cleveland's black community. It was started as a community center by Russell & Rowena Jelliffe, two Oberlin College graduates who were steeped in their school's progressive tradition as the first U.S. college to offer racially mixed classes. Though they were white, the Jelliffes welcomed all comers.

The arts became a significant focus of the center, then called Playhouse Settlement (it took on its current name, a Swahili word meaning "a joyful gathering place," in the early 1940s). From the 1930s to the '70s, Karamu was a magnet for black artists, gradually acquiring its reputation as a center for African-American arts, since most other institutions of the time were closed to them. Among those who worked there were renowned poet-playwright Langston Hughes, Ron "Superfly" O'Neal, Robert Guillaume of Soap and Benson fame, and American Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd.

After attending college in his native Houston, Spivey decamped for New York, where he spent 18 years working in hotels and pursuing acting. In 2001, he organized a theater company to bring together African Americans and Hispanics in his Harlem neighborhood. He found a sense of empowerment as a producer/director that he never knew as an actor.

It was around that time that Spivey recalled the progressive black theater in Cleveland he had heard about so many years before."I thought, let me see if Karamu is around. I looked at the website at what they were working on for the season. All the plays except one had "director to be announced." I e-mailed them, and they said, 'Send us a résumé.' I wasn't looking to be a guest director; just browsing to see what was going on. But they asked me to come direct Little Tommy Parker. It was as if they were foreshadowing me as artistic director."

At the time, Gerry McClamy was Karamu's executive director, following in the footsteps of the more artistically inclined Margaret Ford Taylor in 1996. McClamy had been trying to serve as the theater's director as well, despite her lack of background in the art form. It was not a period of great artistic strides, but it kept the bottom line in shape.

"Gerry McClamy's idea was, everything should be fiscally responsible, that no money should be wasted," remembers James Workman, a former Karamu employee who wore many hats there in two stints between 1997 and 2008. "You only have 100 seats in the theater, and that's not going to help your cause as far as making money. But she did a good job of keeping Karamu afloat financially and also keeping productions going."

Longtime Cleveland theater critic and playwright Linda Eisenstein, who attended Karamu as a teenager in the '60s, remembers the pre-Spivey years: "Karamu was just barely on life support. The foundations, as far as I can tell, were about ready to give up on it. The quality was not very high, and they were doing an attenuated season — bringing back Black Nativity once a season and doing maybe another play or two. The theater was pretty much in disarray."

By 2003, McClamy recognized the problem and quickly eyed the solution in Spivey. Before the run of Little Tommy Parker was over, she'd extended an invitation for him to stay in Cleveland.

"I went home and talked to my family," says Spivey. "I heard that Gerry told one of the actors, 'He's on our prayer list; we've got to get him here.'"

And so they did.

Upon arriving, with his wife and two young children in tow, Spivey found himself up against some steep challenges: He was leading an understaffed organization with a shoestring budget and fighting back a growing reputation as an unprofessional community theater that few people even knew about.

That started to change in early 2004, when Eisenstein showed up to review Spivey's production of Thomas Gibbons' Bee-Luther Hatchee, a racially charged play that hinges on a white man's literary impersonation of an elderly black woman. She was so enthralled by what she saw that she convinced The Plain Dealer to run her review. The paper's regular theater critic, Tony Brown, picked up on her enthusiasm and wrote a major profile of Spivey before the show closed. He started returning regularly to review Karamu's shows.

Today, almost everyone from the artists to the audiences to the critics to the highly influential Gund and Cleveland Foundations — both major Karamu House funders — sing the praises of Spivey and what he's accomplished.

"When I first met him, the thing that impressed me so much was his deep understanding and empathy for the historic perspective of what Karamu has been," says Eisenstein. "He got what the potential of Karamu was. [He wants] to reestablish it as a basis of pride in the theater community, as well as in the community as a whole. Somebody like him comes along once in a generation — someone who has both the skills and the vision."

"He's a wonderful director," says Peter Lawson Jones, the former Cuyahoga County commissioner who launched a full-time acting career after county reform squeezed him out of a job last year. He credits Spivey for encouraging him to return to his theater roots. "I think Terrence is an MVP and is one of the most critical assets that Karamu has."

But for all the accolades from seemingly every corner, Spivey now finds himself in a battle for the theater's survival — and perhaps for his own future at Karamu.

When Gerry McClamy retired as Karamu's executive director in 2006, she was succeeded on an interim basis by Greg Ashe, a former director of the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland.

The move came with its share of irony. Karamu board members had heard claims that Ashe cultivated a hostile environment at his previous employer. Jones called a friend to investigate the rumors, but was told to give Ashe a chance.

"He has a set of skills I thought would be useful," says Jones, who voted for Ashe's permanent appointment. And in 2007, the board did just that.

But a short time later, some observers saw Ashe becoming more aggressive in putting his stamp on the institution. Board members noticed early in his tenure that there was tension between him and Spivey. Ashe could be aggressive and even a little intimidating. Spivey's personality is described by multiple observers as "patient," "relaxed," and "very zen in many ways." Ashe seemed anything but that.

"Terrence didn't trust Greg, [and] Greg didn't feel Spivey was a team player," one board member recalls. "The board had a meeting to help them work it through, maybe 3-4 years ago. There were some accommodations, but they didn't last.

"Terrence felt not enough money was put into marketing the theater and that the administration was slow in approving contracts for actors, directors, and royalties," says the board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And anytime there was a policy disagreement like that, he felt Greg conducted himself in a confrontational manner."

Their priorities weren't a good fit either. Given Ashe's background — and his lack of theater expertise — it was perhaps to be expected that daycare and education earned the lion's share of his attention.

Some of that was justifiable. Karamu had long struggled with its finances, and keeping it on solid footing was a priority. The daycare and education programs made money; the theater didn't always do so, despite its twin cash-cow productions — God's Trombones and Black Nativity — and the money it brings in from Cuyahoga County's arts & culture tax: $150,187 this coming year, according to county figures.

But it was the theater that got the publicity, the newspaper stories, the awards — increasingly so as Spivey's reputation grew. He lobbied successfully for Karamu to receive the prestigious longevity award from the National Black Theater Festival in 2005. He was profiled by the influential national publication American Theatre in 2009. Last year, Karamu performed its signature production of God's Trombones — a 1927 poetry book of "Negro sermons" adapted by Spivey — at the Akron Civic Theatre, the first time in years a Karamu show had been mounted outside its building. That production was featured in the Gund Foundation's annual report for 2010.

"God's Trombones is my adaptation, so they don't have to worry about paying royalties," Spivey points out. "It makes money for Karamu."

Performing-arts patrons, understandably, are convinced that without the theater, Karamu's daycare would be just another inner-city business.

"The theater is really the backbone of Karamu," says Jeri Waters, a former Karamu board member who became involved by working on a 2006 fund-raiser. "When you mention the name Karamu, [the theater] is what most people in the community associate Karamu with. It's its brand."

"I feel the history of theater at Karamu is at the heart of that institution, and the institution's energy needs to go to supporting theater," says Jones.

The implication in Jones' words is that any energy that doesn't support the theater needs to be kicked to the curb.

"He's never in the theater," Jones says of Ashe. "He doesn't interact with the actors."

Scene requested an interview with Greg Ashe for this story. He responded that he was too busy, but offered to field questions sent by e-mail.

As for his involvement with the theater, he responded, "I make it a priority to attend opening-night performances."

Shortly after Ashe received a list of questions from Scene, Karamu staffers found a message in their mailboxes, forbidding them to talk to the media without clearing it with him first.

Cleveland playwright Michael Oatman has been involved with Karamu for five years. His productions — including Before I Die: The War Against Tupac — have brought widespread attention to the theater and earned him the 2010 Cleveland Arts Prize for writing. He gives endless credit to Spivey, but says he barely knows Ashe.

"He's pleasant enough; he says hello in the hall," says Oatman, a hulking, outspoken man. "But basically I have no interaction with him."

He admits to being surprised when Ashe was tapped to introduce him for the Cleveland Arts Prize. He expected that Spivey, who encouraged him to write about Tupac and created a spot for him as Karamu's playwright in residence, would be the one to do the honors. Other local theater people suggest it was a power play on Ashe's part, intended to diminish Spivey's prominence.

Many of the people contacted for this story indicated a reluctance to speak on the record about the relationship between Spivey and Ashe, for fear of hurting Karamu — an institution they love — or their own relationship with it.

"Off the record, I think it's jealousy," says one. "Terrence was getting a lot of favorable publicity, and Greg is jealous of anyone else getting publicity."

When the subject turns to Ashe, Spivey grows mum.

In Ashe's e-mail response, he offered this about Spivey: "Terrence's wonderful ability to bring a play to life is appreciated both internally and externally by audiences and critics."

He didn't respond to specific questions about the issues at Karamu, sticking to generalities about the institution and what it does.

Early in 2011, Jeri Waters was elected chair of Karamu's board. Architect Neil Dick, who was welcomed into the organization two years earlier by his friend Peter Lawson Jones, was elected vice chairman. Waters and Dick looked at how the board was functioning and felt that it needed to step up and oversee Karamu more diligently, as the nonprofit's bylaws give it authority to do.

Dick had previous experience as a board member with the Cleveland Sight Center, where he'd learned the importance of effective governance of an organization by its board. Ashe says that Karamu has operated in the black for the past three years. But Dick felt the board needed to step up its level of involvement to do some serious fund-raising heading into Karamu's centennial in 2015; after all, its 1940s facility needs extensive upgrades, and Karamu has no endowment to draw from.

"The board has quite a bit of power, and it must be exercised wisely," says Dick. "It has power to hire and fire an executive director, and to give instructions to the director during the year."

The board could also ask Spivey to report directly to it, Dick says. But more conflict arose with Ashe when that request was made.

"The executive director wanted to filter through him, and we wanted to hear from the artistic director [directly]," says Dick. "He is an incredibly creative individual, and we wanted to hear what he wanted to achieve. The artistic director reports to the executive director, but the board does have the authority to decide who participates at their meetings. This was a very serious clash. It was going to make very significant changes in how Karamu had operated for many years, and people don't like change."

One of those people was Ashe. Several board members observed that the director tried to marginalize Spivey's interaction with the board.

"He would not put him on the agenda," says one board member, "or he'd make Terrence one of four or five people from various departments to report, to diminish his presence."

Another board request that didn't go over well was a performance review of the executive director.

"Greg Ashe has been executive director for years, and he has never had a performance review," says Waters. "They would say there should be one, but it was never done. When I became the board chair, it was definitely high on the list." She adds that another board suggestion — that Ashe take some training in running an arts-based organization — fell on deaf ears.

The board also found that the long-simmering tension between Spivey and Ashe hadn't cooled off. Early this year, two employees — both on the administrative side, not in the theater — charged that Spivey had verbally abused them. One said Spivey had sent her nasty notes, though she didn't save them. Others viewed the claims as being out of character for a man widely known for his easy-going demeanor.

"I have no doubt Greg orchestrated it," says one Spivey ally, who points out that one of the accusers had been at Karamu for only a few months and is no longer there.

Another person close to Karamu's theater, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalls tales of another employee having Ashe approach him "nose to nose with threats."

"The complaint never went to the board," the source says, "and human resources tried to get him to drop it. He refused and later was fired."

In the spring, Waters sent a letter to Ashe and Spivey, asking them to sit down with the board and address the situation. "Terrence said he would do it, and Greg said he would too," she says. "We had a meeting set up, maybe in May, and it was canceled. I don't remember why. From there, things went downhill."

That summer, board members supportive of Ashe told Waters and Dick that an attorney had been secured to ensure that they resigned from the board, according to Waters. The ultimatum stemmed from what Waters vaguely calls "a situation with an employee" — an employee Waters and Dick scarcely knew. (Waters claims she can't go into further details for legal reasons.)

"That was their way to get rid of us," Waters says, "because they knew we were going to hold Greg Ashe accountable and that things were going to change."

By August, both Waters and Dick had been ousted by the other members — a majority of whom are allies of Ashe, they say.

Ashe did not respond to e-mailed requests to share his side of the story.

Board member Andrew Jackson, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Partnership's Commission on Economic Inclusion — and an ally of Ashe, according to the former members — did not return calls for this story prior to Ashe's media embargo. Likewise, other board members contacted after Ashe's decree have not responded to interview requests.

As the turmoil was brewing, Jones says that the board's legal counsel suddenly demanded he fill out a conflict-of-interest form that would have barred him from participating in Karamu plays. Never mind that he'd been performing at Karamu since January 2008, while he was still a county commissioner. All of a sudden, things changed.

"I want to perform wherever I want, whenever I want, to build my career," Jones says. "I had created some of the largest fund-raisers in their history. I initiated the Karamu Hall of Fame banquet. I chaired the resource-development committee. I had been an active board member, but when faced with that choice, it was a simple choice for me, given where I am in my life."

Feeling pinched, Jones walked away in October. He says that his resignation, coming on the heels of Waters' and Dick's forced departures, precipitated the resignation of still another board member: Shilpi Banerjee, an attorney at Cleveland Clinic. When contacted for this story, she didn't cite a specific reason for her departure.

The loss of almost half the boardroom in two months would raise eyebrows in any organization; at Karamu it's been a well-kept secret.

Reached in mid-November, Deena Epstein of the Gund Foundation and Kathleen Cerveny of the Cleveland Foundation both were unaware of the board turnover or the issues behind it.

Jones is cautiously optimistic about the remaining board's potential to right the ship. "The current chair [Chase VP David Reynolds] recognizes Greg's deficits and won't give him an easy time of it," he says. Reynolds could not be reached for comment.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Karamu House has just completed a powerful production of Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box, a play about hospice care and three families dealing with a member's imminent death.

Outside in the cramped lobby, the interracial cast lines up in front of a row of black metal chairs, their cushions upholstered in a green and red floral pattern last seen in your grandmother's house. The cast members warmly greet the emerging audience and engage in banter with friends. Spivey, a blocky man with a broad, friendly face and a flowing mane of long, slender dreadlocks, floats among them, greeting everyone who passes by. The actors are effusive in their praise of Spivey.

"He's the best director," says Ken Parker, who has acted in many Karamu productions under Spivey. In Little Tommy Parker, he played a dying man torn between his party-girl ex-wife and the gay lover who has been his caretaker. "A lot of us are here because of him."

"He gave me my first break," says Jeanne Madison, who played the ex-wife.

Once everyone has left, Spivey sits in the more spacious lobby of Karamu's larger Jelliffe Theater, surrounded by production stills from past plays. He talks warmly about theater past, present, and future. And he's demonstrating what almost everyone says about him: that he's always in the theater, and that he can talk about theater all night if you'll let him.

At one point, he recalls his arrival at Karamu, being greeted by Gerry McClamy and promotions director Vivian Wilson with hugs that knocked back his Texas Stetson, causing a wooden African mask to fall off the wall and break in two.

"I'm thinking it's some sort of voodoo thing," he recalls with a smile. "I'm doomed."

So far, and insofar as his impact on the Karamu theater goes, Spivey has been charmed. Reviews have been good and — perhaps more telling — more and more people are stepping up and asking to get involved. More people than they could ever handle, in fact.

But Spivey is cagy about his relationship with Greg Ashe. When asked about the rumor that he's threatened to quit once The Shadow Box closes, he only smiles. In fact, The Shadow Box has since given way to Karamu's seasonal war horse, Black Nativity, and Spivey remains at the helm.

Ousted board member Neil Dick, for one, hopes things remain that way.

"I want to see Karamu not just survive, but to grow to that level I know it can become," he says. "It would be a terrible loss [if Terrence left]. I know for a fact there are other entities that would love to have him, and unfortunately several of them are not here in Cleveland."

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