When the news hit Cleveland Play House Managing Director Mark Cuddy that Light It Up! — a commissioned musical which premiered last year — was no longer able to run as planned for December, he sprang into action with the urgency needed to fit months of work into mere weeks.
“We were taken by surprise,” Cuddy recalls. “We had a cast, we had all the designs done, we were working on it. It was it was quite late.”
Immediately, the managing director thought of Karamu House and Apollo’s Fire, “two Cleveland companies that pull — if I could persuade them to come over to the theater.”
When Karamu House CEO and Black Nativity Director Tony F. Sias learned of the opportunity to bring the classic Langston Hughe’s musical back to Playhouse Square, he sprang just as quickly.
According to Sias, Playhouse Square last housed the production nearly 40 years ago. Since then, Karamu usually performs the piece on the organization’s own stage. Shifting back to the physically larger Allen Theatre required a slight re-tooling of visual elements — costume patterns and colors needed to pop brighter, lighting and sight lines needed readjustment for the difference in seating.
“Karamu is almost a 200-seat theater and Allen Theater is a 408,” says Sias. “I've seen sort of the things that, from a costume design perspective, the things that would read on our stage might not read as well as it relates to colors, patterns, prints, as well in the larger theater. So, we had to go back to the drawing board and really think about costume design in a different way.”
Such a merger, two producing theater organizations working together on one company's production, happens rarely in the industry. The added context of CPH and Karamu’s history in Cleveland adds to the gravity of the collaboration.
Both companies began in 1915, with Karamu House considered the oldest African American theater in the country. Shared history in mind, Sias and Cuddy view the partnership as a notable moment for the city.
“This coming together of sister theaters — which is really at the center of community,” Sias muses. “This is an incredible example of how opportunity presents itself and that people coming together to work together in the spirit of community ... it's possible.”
Black Nativity, written in 1961 by Karamu alum and famous poet and playwright Langston Hughes, retells the New Testament nativity story with gospel flair and “dramatic dance,” bolstering the biblical tale. The performance boasts a focus on Black culture and several original songs added into the mix of music derived from traditional carols.
The musical runs until Sunday, Dec. 18, at Allen Theatre. Wassail! An Irish-Appalachian Christmas from Apollo’s Fire runs Dec. 21-22. Tickets are still available for both productions. clevelandplayhouse.com
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