Langston Hughes: Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943

By Joseph McLaren | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
The Gilpin Players and the Karamu Comedies

From 1936 to 1939, six of Hughes's plays were produced at Karamu Theatre: Little Ham ( 1936), When the Jack Hollers ( 1936), Troubled Island ( 1936), Joy to My Soul ( 1937), Front Porch ( 1938), and Mulatto ( 1939). The Gilpin Players, a product of Karamu House, were, according to Hughes, the "nearest thing we have" to a "serious Negro dramatic theater."1 Hughes, who resided in Cleveland from 1916 to 1920, was given at Karamu Theater an opportunity to have his works performed by a renowned black company that could sympathetically interpret the playwright's material. Karamu Theatre provided trial runs for Hughes's plays. Although many of these productions could have benefited from "reworking," their faults can be seen as an "occupational hazard of the playwright." 2

The establishment of Karamu Theatre can be traced to the social conditions in Cleveland during the second decade of the twentieth century. Cleveland became a center of cultural activity resulting from the general interest in African American social conditions, which became subject matter for social evaluations and programs. The precinct area known as the "Roaring Third" was the heart of the black community, which contained some fifteen thousand people of African descent. This area was also populated by Austrians, Italians, Russians, Jews, Syrians, and Asians.

Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, two white social workers and newly married graduates of the University of Chicago, were commissioned in 1914 by representatives of Dr. Peter Dudley Allen to conduct a sociological study of the Roaring Third. A philanthropist and member of the

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