THEATER REVIEW: “Letters From Zora” @ Karamu by Roy Berko

Through Sun 6/24

In September 2015, when Tony F. Sias was appointed as president and CEO of Karamu, the country’s oldest African-American theater, the organization was at its lowest point. In financial trouble, having slipped in the quality of its arts programs and seemingly rudderless, the future looked bleak.

Now, three years later, the organization, which was founded in 1915 by two white Oberlin College grads, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, has revitalized its theater offerings, finished a construction project which renovated the 200-seat Jelliffe Theatre, and has plans to renovate their Arena theatre, add a restaurant and an outdoor patio, redo the lobby and other parts of the facility and add a gift shop and retail space. The once-bleak future now looks bright.

Sias states, “The Jelliffe renovation maintains the traditional proscenium layout with a permanent apron [minimal thrust], but now includes an orchestra pit stage left that can also be used for additional seating.” The auditorium has been heavily raked, making sight lines excellent. There are new seats and the entire area has a warm and comfortable.

The opening coincided with the induction of “National Living Legend” Vanessa Bell Calloway into the 2018 Karamu Hall of Fame and the regional premiere of her award-winning one-woman show Letters from Zora.

Calloway, who has earned eight NAACP Image Awards for her role as Zora Neale Hurston, has been seen in such films as South Side With YouComing to AmericaWhat’s Love Got to Do With It  and The Inkwell. She is currently starring in Bounce TV’s Saints and Sinners. She has also been seen in numerous stage productions.

Calloway says, “I’m so very proud of my Karamu roots! This playhouse was the beginning of my career and it taught me so much about the arts. I am delighted to return home.”

Letters from Zora, a two-act one-woman show, presented without intermission, was written by Gabrielle Denise Pina and directed by Dashiell Sparks. The story is based on letters written by prolific novelist Zora Neale Hurston, a self-proclaimed “early cougar.” Her correspondence has been fused with a fictional narrative which illuminates the highs and lows of Zora’s life, her years as a literary giant who offered a new creative expression in the arts to deeply influence culture, and her contributions to the American literary canon.

The actions are supported by a soundtrack which, by incorporating the musical styles of Hurston’s life, including blues guitar and harmonica sounds, creates the moods of the deep south as well as the pulse of the Harlem Renaissance and Zora’s role in one of the highlight times for Black arts in America.

Though a little long, the story teaches a history lesson to those unaware of the complexity of the life of the Negro in the south during the late 19th and early to mid-20th century.

Ms. Calloway’s performance is a tour de force. Alone on stage for almost an hour and a half, she weaves the tale with sass, power, inflection, and a compelling presence.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Karamu enters mid-2018 with a bright future. Considering that only a few years ago it was rumored that the nationally important African-American institution was on death’s doorstep, this is an amazing success story. Their recent Homecoming celebration is a welcome sign that there is much to come from “the joyful gathering place.”

Letters From Zora continues through Sun 6/24. For ticket information go to or call 216-795-7077.

Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]


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