Dramatic history: Former Karamu director Terrence Spivey aims to bring his latest work home

Terrence Spivey, the former artistic director of the Karamu House in the Fairfax neighborhood, has remained busy since he stepped down from his position in 2016. He has continued to write, direct, and produce such plays throughout Greater Cleveland.

The same year Spivey left Karamu, he directed the nationally acclaimed “Objectively/Reasonable: A Community Response to the Shooting of Tamir Rice” at Cleveland’s Playwrights Local and excerpts were aired on National Public Radio's Michel Martin’s Going There: Getting Real About Race.

Then, in December 2017 the Cleveland Heights resident debuted his Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble Theater Company with James Baldwin's “The Amen Corner” at Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center in the Buckeye Woodland neighborhood.

In 2019, Spivey directed Regina Taylor’s “Resistance,” at the inaugural BorderLight Fringe Festival, while working with Cuyahoga County Public Library to develop an outreach program with Maple Heights middle school students called The Ultimate Reach. Students participated in drama workshops and theater games for youth.

20202020 production of MAAFA at Olivet Institutional Baptist ChurchDocumenting the Clotilda story

In 2021, the Clotilda Descendants Association commissioned Spivey to write and direct “An Ocean in My Bones,” a play about the last illegal slave ship, the Clotilda.

The Clotilda Descendants premiered the play in February 2022 at the Spirit of Our Ancestors Festival in Africatown in Mobile, Alabama—a part of Mobile that Clotilda descendants purchased—transforming the community’s school gym into a 700-seat theatre. The play returned in February 2023 and will do so again in 2024.

The association was also instrumental in the making of the documentary “Descendent,” which documents the struggle to find the lost ship and bring its history to light. The film won the Special Jury Award for Vision at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022 and is currently streaming on Netflix.

In “Ocean,” Spivey uses narrators who have written about the survivors of the Clotilda, including acclaimed author Zora Neale Hurston, whose 1931 nonfiction book, about the last survivor of the Clotilda, “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo,” was finally published in 2018.

“It’s a matter of getting money to bring it to Cleveland,” says Spivey. “But it’ll be the third year we bring it back and do it in Mobile, Alabama. Some things you don’t plan, right? …. I never thought I’d be connected to some descendants who knew their ancestors, and they’d be reaching out to me about bringing them to life.”

Powerful Long Ladder theatre outreach program The Ultimate ReachPowerful Long Ladder theatre outreach program The Ultimate ReachAnimating people and theater

Spivey knows something about bringing characters to life by observing the behaviors of the people around him.

Spivey vividly remembers being fascinated as a child by the customers and the atmosphere at his great-grandmother’s juke joint in the small town of Kountze, Texas.

To this day, he can provide set designers with detailed instructions on how to recreate the establishment, including the waist-high swinging doors, the sawdust on the floor and the “No Cussing” sign above the bar.

As a struggling young actor in New York, Spivey worked as an usher at an indie movie theater, remembering the many celebrities he saw come through the theater.

From the lobby, he once watched a crew of pickpockets perform an elaborate dance that relieved unsuspecting tourists of their wallets in front of Bloomingdale’s department store across the street.

When Karamu brought Spivey to Cleveland in 2002 to guest direct, they put him up in the historic Alcazar Hotel in Cleveland Heights.

Spivey returned the following year as Karamu’s artistic director and arranged his schedule so he could spend Sundays watching and talking to Alcazar residents and guests around the goldfish fountain in the lobby.

Spivey’s observations of the world have helped him build a remarkable career as an actor, director, and playwright. During his 12-year tenure Karamu House, the oldest integrated performing arts center in the country, Spivey took control when the theater hadn’t had an artistic director in more than 15 years and was in serious decline.

He attracted critics to Karamu for the first time in years, created training programs for young actors, and tackled difficult plays, such as Lonnie Elder III’s  “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” Tony Kushner ‘s “Caroline, or Change” in collaboration with the Dobama Theatre, and Jean Genet’s “The Blacks: A Clown Show.”

By the time Spivey left Karamu House in 2016, he had increased attendance and returned the theater to its status as a premier cultural arts institution in Cleveland.

Karamu House award winning 2008 production Lonne Elder Ill "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" directed by Christopher JohnstonA career-changing choice

Spivey says he struggled with the decision to move to Cleveland. His children were young, and his wife was a firm New Yorker from the Bronx. The only thing he knew about the city was the Karamu House and former Cleveland Browns running back, actor, and activist Jim Brown.

“My mother [was] raising four boys and one girl,” Spivey recalls of his childhood. “And I thought Jim Brown was my daddy because that’s all she talked about with her girlfriends. And she dragged us all to those Black movie houses to see his movies. That’s what kind of got me going, in terms of art.”

Spivey studied theater at Prairie View A&M University in Houston, where he first heard about the Karamu House, and was especially intrigued by the legendary poets and writers, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who haunted its halls.

“I didn’t know stage was a career—I thought it was just… a launching pad to get into movies,” he says. “I was ready to go to Hollywood when I was in high school. When I got to college, I realized [the stage] is the true foundation for all actors and artists. And I realized that it is a career.”

After college, Spivey went to New York and spent his days as a struggling actor—reading the acting trade publication Backstage for parts, studying the Meisner technique at the William Esper Studio, and his nights were spent ushering at movie theatres and later working in hotels.

But mostly, he observed the aquarium that is New York City, collecting stories, and realizing that he found more creative satisfaction in directing and writing than he did as an actor. When he saw that the Karamu House was looking for directors, he applied, and Karamu asked him to guest direct.

All of Spivey’s observations of people and their environments come to life as he talks about how he brought theater critics back to Karamu House.

Journalist Fran Heller contacted Spivey about including one of his first productions at the Karamu, “Bee-Luther Hatchee,” in the Backstage’s “Regional Roundup”—the bible of his earlier acting days.

Spivey’s production was so captivating to the playwright, Linda Eisenstein, that she convinced the Plain Dealer to run a review, even though the play was nearing the end of its production. This in turn sparked the interest of Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown, who agreed to do a profile.

Terrence Spivey and cast of Terrence Spivey and cast of "Resistance" with playwright and Golden Globe award-winning actress Regina Taylor in 2019Even though the production was over, Spivey made sure they didn’t strike the set right away.

“Bee-Luther Hatchee”—which deals with racism and cultural appropriation—has a set that was impressive and appropriately theatrical. Gigantic piles of books stacked at various levels filled the stage, each one spotlighted for different scenes.

Spivey envisioned himself meeting Brown on the set, surrounded by the giant books. What he didn’t see, however, was how theatrical Tony Brown was.

Brown walked into the darkened Karamu House looking like a character from the movie “Long Riders,” with a full-length trench coat and a big black hat. He looked menacing. But when Spivey took him into the completely pitch-black theater, Brown said, “You trying to kill me or something?”

It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Spivey and Brown.

Awards and honors

During his tenure at Karamu, Spivey convinced the National Black Theater Festival, based in Winston Salem, North Carolina, to give Karamu its Theatre Longevity Award and he was profiled in the national publication American Theatre in 2009.

Spivey adapted James Weldon Johnson’s 1927 collection of free-verse sermon poems, “God’s Trombones” and staged it at both Karamu House and the Akron Civic Theatre—the first time in years that Karamu staged a production outside its own building.

When talking about Karamu and Cleveland, Spivey says, “It was just right. It was just the glove fit so well.”

Earlier this year, Color of Change, one of the country’s largest racial justice organizations honored Spivey with its Preserving Truth in Education award for his lifelong work showcasing Black history and culture through the arts.

This fall, he will be a panelist for the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference on Sept. 30 at the Cleveland Public Library.

It’s no accident that Spivey includes the legendary Zora Neale Hurston as a narrator in “An Ocean in My Bones”

“Walking those halls of Karamu made me think of many I learned had been [in those same halls], especially Langston and Zora,” he says. “Then finding out [Hurston] met [Hughes] in Mobile, Alabama during her visits, working on her book Barracoon.”

Spivey is an exceptional storyteller who possesses an extraordinary ability to convey the stories he gathers in his work. The creative haven he has found in Cleveland has provided him with the perfect platform to showcase the incredible saga of the Clotilda survivors and descendants. It would be fitting for him to bring this story home to Cleveland.

About the Author: Katie McMenamin

Katie McMenamin has written across a range of platforms, from broadcast news and published novels to promotional brochures and back cover blurbs.