Reflections on the role of Theatre by Karamu's Artistic Director — Karamu — AAPEX

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reflections on the role of Theatre by Karamu's Artistic Director

The following is reprinted from
The Cleveland Free Times
, Ohio's Premier News, Arts and Entertainment Weekly (Volume 15, Issue 3 Published May 23, 2007)

Spivey-man Director Scales Tall Obstacles
By James Damico

Karamu's Spivey - New blood, new/old mission.

Terrence Spivey, whose last name rhymes with Spidey, makes no claims of being a superhero. Actually, for a head administrator in a traditionally self-congratulatory field, he's positively humble. But, as he winds down his fourth season as Karamu Theatre's artistic director, he'd be entirely justified in immodestly boasting of several significant achievements in reinvigorating that venerable institution.

Over a near-century of continuous existence, the historic theater has enjoyed many periods of artistic and cultural glory. However, it's also sporadically undergone stretches of aesthetic doldrums. Spivey's appointment in 2003 succeeded one such lull and faced the newcomer with numerous problems in affecting a revitalization.

"The main obstacle," recalls Spivey, "was building trust in the community, the audience. Some had been following Karamu for 50 years, and its fluctuations caused many to step back from something they felt had lost its true identity." Regaining that identity was "like turning around the Titanic." A daunting task, the director confides, that "only doubled my passion for this historical institution."

During his first days on the job, he says, "I would stay past midnight in the building by myself, just to hear the quietness. It's such a spiritual place." That experience led to an epiphany of sorts. "I realized my first specific goal was not an artistic one, but was as the poet Sekou Dundiata puts it 'to leave room for the ghost.' To allow the past to embrace the theater as a positive thread." In practical terms, this meant that "Karamu had to think big, bad, bold and beyond. Blow the dust off and recapture the image the wonderful Jelliffes [Karamu's founders] created multiracial and thought-provoking plays."

It's a dual pledge Spivey has made good on, and prime areas where the theater has restored a marked measure of lost luster. Recently, this column noted that Karamu's last two productions alternated a black-directed, white-authored play with one reversing those roles, and praised the increasing interracial mix of artists. The admirable trend is likely to continue.

"Whenever I read a good script not composed of an all-black cast," states Spivey, "I will put it on stage if the time is right. I'm aware of what Karamu stood for from the start and strategically looked at ways to ease from the then-existing image into a more diversified one ... to gradually caress the Jelliffes' true mission, a multicultural theater with emhpasis on the African-American experience."

Nor has there been any shying away from the promise of provocative presentations. This season, for example, blended a fantasy examining African-American female stereotypes with a drama of racial conflict in the art-museum world, a satire of black funeral customs and a premiere musical revue of gospel history. The year ends potently with King Hedley II, a late work by the late August Wilson, America's most celebrated black playwright, which begins previews tonight and runs through June 17.

Perhaps the most visible improvement Spivey has wrought is the upgrading of Karamu's acting quality. An essential part of his original strategy was "getting actors to believe in themselves and placing them in challenging works that allow them to grow. Good acting heads the complete package that causes audiences to feel they're getting their money's worth." And, at least recently, few patrons are storming the box office demanding refunds.

Important among further signs of reawakened life is an ongoing, healthy communication and cooperation with other area theaters, especially the Cleveland Play House, which Spivey expects will expand. Asked about his vision of Karamu's future, he replies, "My hope beyond building a solid educational base for the younger generation to learn from and follow †is to maintain quality work that not only showcases local artists but attracts national ones."

Seems even non-superheroes dream about climbing skyscrapers, and, who knows? maybe even bringing it off.

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