Karamu House Dance Program History
Founded in 1915, Karamu House, a place of joyful gathering (the meaning of ‘Karamu” in Swahili), allowed people from different races, religions, and economic backgrounds to come together through the arts. Recognized as the nation’s oldest, producing African American theatre, Karamu House is continually cited as one of Cleveland’s top four treasures—and featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Karamu was founded in 1915 as the Playhouse Settlement by Russell and Rowena Jelliffe who were white, Jewish social workers. They founded the organization in the Central neighborhood known then as the “roaring third”. It was a neighborhood settlement house created to serve eastern European immigrants - to acclimate them to the industrial city. The arts were one tool used to build community. In 1917, the Jelliffes welcomed-in two young, Black boys and this began the integration of the Playhouse Settlement and its programs. Through theatre, dance and visual art programming the organization quickly became known nationally as the training ground for many Black artists. The Playhouse Settlement and then Karamu House would become a beacon for multicultural arts experiences.
The dance program at Karamu was vital and vibrant for many decades, inspiring many to dive deeply into dance and other performing arts. There were many enthusiastic students and performers at Karamu. Several Karamu alumni made the leap to consummate life-time professionals in dance, theatre and visual arts.
Notables of Karamu House include playwright, Langston Hughes, and authors Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. Among notable performers who refined their craft at Karamu and later found success on Broadway, in Hollywood and at stages and concert halls throughout the world were Ruby Dee, Ron O'Neal, Robert Guillaume, Imani Hakim, Vanessa Bell Calloway and James Pickens, Jr. of Grey's Anatomy. Additional performers include Karen Hubbard, Charles Moore, Walter Nicks, Clyde Morgan and Reggie Kelly, to name a few.
In the early 1930s Marjorie Witt Johnson landed a job with the Jelliffes at the Neighborhood Association summer camp as a dance instructor for teens. Marjorie Witt Johnson was originally from Wyoming, her father was an original Buffalo Soldier. She attended and graduated from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Her parents selected Oberlin because it was one of the few "white" colleges that accepted Black students. Though Marjorie majored in the area of Social Work, she studied dance at Oberlin with Marjorie Snyder and the Jelliffes were impressed with her dance background. After the summer camp, Marjorie continued with the group at Karamu and in 1935 the group became the first Karamu Dancers. Marjorie trained them with amazing diligence - girls and boys. In the beginning, they performed at Karamu and in local schools. Eventually they were performing in many locations, even outside of Cleveland. In 1939 the Karamu Dancers performed at the World's Fair in New York to much acclaim and the company was photographed by Life Magazine and the brilliant images appeared in a 1940's issue.
Karamu was forced to find a new location in the 1940s after a mysterious fire destroyed the founding building. The Jelliffes relocated the Karamu House to Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood. After a renovation in the 40’s, Karamu provided facilities for its noteworthy programs and classes in performing and visual arts.
In 1943 the Karamu Concert Dancers came under the direction of Eleanor Frampton who had taught dance previously at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She was a longtime associate of Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman and her style reflected their work. In the time of Marjorie Witt Johnson all of the company dancers were Black, under Eleanor Frampton the group was integrated racially, though a number of the same dancers who originally trained with Marjorie continued. There were extensive classes in all kinds of dance during that period in time.
Led in the 1950s by staff members such as Benno Frank and Artistic Director Reuben Silver, Karamu gained a reputation as one of the best amateur creative arts groups in the United States.
In 1961 Joan Hartshorne who had been a dancer with Jose Limon became the director of the Karamu Dancers and remained so until 1981. The schedule of dance classes remained very vigorous during Joan's tenure and the Karamu Concert Dancers had a full schedule of performances at Karamu and in and around Cleveland. At times, the group performed with the Cleveland Orchestra and in operas. The Karamu dance department also had community programs, after school and in the summer for young people all around the city. The Karamu Concert Dancers were the program teaching artists. Many young people got the "bug" to continue dance studies from these satellite programs.
In the 1980s and 90s dance classes continued at Karamu. Yet, by the 1990s there were not as many focused programs.
In 1980 Marjorie Witt Johnson, together with Karamu artistic director Linda Thomas Jones, founded the Imani African American Dance Co., a troupe which danced to West African music, reminiscent of the original Karamu Dancers.
In 2000 Michael Medcalf, a dancer originally from Cleveland (in the first graduating class of Cleveland School of the Arts) returned to his hometown to develop his own company, Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre. Michael studied extensively in Philadelphia and New York and had a professional career with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, Colorado. In 2004 Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre became the resident company at Karamu House. During the years of the residency, until 2009, the company conducted classes and the dance vibrancy returned to Karamu. It was at the invitation of Michael that Dianne McIntyre researched and choreographed "Daughter of a Buffalo Soldier" the life of Marjorie Witt Johnson. It was performed at Karamu in 2005. Ms. Johnson and some of the original members of the Karamu dancers were in attendance. Photos in the lobby were of the original group - some from Life Magazine and others found from the 1930s. Ms. Johnson passed away in 2007 at the age of 97.
Dianne McIntyre took modern dance classes as a child in an after-school program. Her teacher was Virginia Dryansky, a Karamu Dancer. She continued studying with her and her ballet teacher, Elaine Gibbs Redmond. Over the years, though living in New York, she choreographed, directed and performed numerous times at Karamu. Since her return to Cleveland in 2003, Dianne has been a part of productions and dance events at Karamu.
Over its 106 years, Karamu has cultivated a well-deserved reputation for nurturing African American performing and visual artists. Today, Karamu continues to produce professional theatre, provide arts education and present community programs for all people while honoring the African American experience.
- Karamu House founded as a neighborhood settlement house
- Marjorie Witt Johnson started the first Karamu Dancers.
- The Karamu Dancers performed at the World's Fair in New York to much acclaim and the company was photographed by Life Magazine and the brilliant images appeared in a 1940's issue of the magazine.
- Karamu Concert Dancers came under the direction of Eleanor Frampton who had taught dance previously at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
- Joan Hartshorne who had been a dancer with Jose Limon became the director of the Karamu Dancers. She remained so until 1981.
- Marjorie Witt Johnson, together with Karamu artistic director Linda Thomas Jones, founded the Imani African American Dance Co., a troupe which danced to West African music, reminiscent of the original Karamu Dancers.
- Michael Medcalf, a dancer originally from Cleveland (in the first graduating class of Cleveland School of the Arts) returned to his hometown to develop his own company, Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre.
- Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre became the resident company at Karamu House.
- Dianne McIntyre was invited by Michael to research and choreograph "Daughter of a Buffalo Soldier" the life of Marjorie Witt Johnson. It was performed at Karamu in 2005.
- Ms. Johnson passed away at the age of 97.