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

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?

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"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.

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