Cleveland and East Tech Shine Bright in 'The Mighty Scarabs!" at Karamu House

Some local playwrights have tried to write a definitive “Cleveland play” in the past, but many of those efforts have just dissolved into a welter of forced local references lost in a plotless landscape.

With the newly-revised version of The Mighty Scarabs! by Cornell Hubert Calhoun III, now at Karamu House, that string of unsuccessful attempts has come to a resounding halt. Based on the awesome high school basketball teams that East Tech spawned in the 1950s, this tight ensemble production rings true at virtually every moment. And it features at least three performances you really need to see.

In this telling, a fictional East Tech “Mighty Scarabs” team had won the Ohio high school championship in 1955 (they actually won it in ’58 and ’59). Now it’s 13 years later and the stars of that team are still in their Central neighborhood, around E. 55th. With a couple relegated to run-of-the-mill jobs and a couple others immersed in the urban cultures of drugs and gambling, the stars that shone so brightly before graduation have dimmed considerably.

Calhoun’s script shines brilliantly, etching clear and entertaining portraits of people who once shared something great. Director Christopher Johnston, in addition to shaping scenes that pop off the stage, has also cast the show adroitly.

Two key roles are played by Karamu veterans, and they have never been better. Prophet Seay plays June Bailey, an actual member of the Might Scarabs and the person to whom Calhoun has dedicated the play. Seay uses all of his impressive performing talents to create a fully dimensional character—funny and sly, foolish and insightful—that anchors the play beautifully.

As June continually seeks the magical big payday by hitting the numbers, the older numbers runner Johnny Dollar is there to dole out the often unexpectedly meager winnings. As Johnny, Rodney Freeman is a hilarious force of nature, sliding through the neighborhood in his too-tight snakeskin shoes and color-matched outfits, uttering his personal catch phrase, Goodnight Irene!” with different inflections to fit any meaning he chooses.
Just as good as Seay and Freeman is Katrice Headd as Girlena, the former squeeze of team star Fast Eddie, who was recently killed. Both sensuous and sensible, Headd’s Girlena is an inner-city queen who still dresses in yellow, Fast Eddie’s favorite color.

Indeed, all these characters are living in the past to some degree, and who can blame them? They were celebrities and, more than that, purveyors of pride and hope to their neighborhood. That’s a high anyone would have a hard time coming down from.

The other ex-players each contribute to the team, er, ensemble. Tyrell Hairston is sadly amusing as a coke-head, nodding off during a card game, and Titus Covington as Ricks and Michael Head as “Six-Five” have the look of athletes gone to seed.

In addition, young Caris Collins handles her part as Girlena’s daughter well, especially a rapid-fire play-by-play of the championship game’s culminating moment. And Lauren Sturdivant is both lovely and apparently doomed as the streetwalker Jamaica.

For anyone who was around Cleveland in the ‘60s, references to Giant Tiger and Sealtest, plus many others, will certainly resonate. But it’s the characters that glow most brightly in The Mighty Scarabs! And while one might wish for a bit more information about how that team functioned on court, the work on stage by Freeman, Seay and Headd is like a smooth dribble weave ending in a slam dunk.

The Mighty Scarabs!
Through March 29 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.