What’s This: He Did Karamu?
For six wonderful weeks back in 2000… was it kismet or karma at play at Karamu? It must have been meant to be that Dennis got to a chance to thread the same boards as so many talented theatre folks did, back in the day… (as they say). For example, the great black poet laureate, Langston Hughes. He, along with Elmer Rice, was a collaborator of composer Kurt Weill. (Google them or go to www/kurtweillfoundation.org.) Well, Dennis’ late mother, Margarite was a Weill aka Weily.
She was also related to the Marx family (branches included those zany Vaudvillians like the Marx Brothers). Anyway that fun Karamu connection? Marge’s Uncle Henry owned and operated Marx Dry Cleaners located in the neighborhood (on Wade Park, I believe at about E. 86th Street). His business would be patronized by many theatrical types… the locals and the ones who came through town while touring the Vaudeville circuit. So are those tales that were told… about how the troupers would take their costumes to be cleaned ’round the corner… then how they would wait their time out… at this theatre called, “Karamu” (Swahili for “a place for joyful meeting”). Are they true?
Does not matter to Den. Hallowed ground = good vibes. In this case… those vibes seemed to be there for Trouper Dennis. Playing Karamu… again, was it kismet… or… was it karma for him? (I know… from where I sat… watching the rehearsals and the performances… it was pure Joy.
Thank you Sue Johnson for making Dennis’ take that “Hey, Rube!”call -for-help from Karamu. Special thanks to director Reggie Kelly for shepherding him in “Spunk”.
Back to Dennis doing the blues at Karamu: Singing and performing in the role of Guitar Man, the only musician in George C. Wolfe‘s Spunk, earned Dennis and the cast an ensemble award (more about that below). He said he loved doing this play, based on fables from the pen of Zora Neale Hurston. Why? The Harlem Renaissance folklorist’s words not only inspired the blues music written by composer Chic Street that Dennis had to duplicate nightly, but they also inspired Guitar Man’s improvisations.
How Did It Go?… Great! Not only did they get rave reviews from the critics, but from nightly audiences as well. So many that they received Outstanding Performance Awards from the Karamu Actors Guild for Best Ensemble and Best Director.
About Those Rave Reviews… In the July 19, 2000 issue of the Cleveland Free Times theater critic James Damico gave a rave review of the play Spunk.
In the July 6, 2000 issue of Scene magazine theater critic Keith Joseph gave a rave review of the play Spunk.
More About Those Awards… Two Outstanding Performance Awards went to “Spunk”. The Karamu Actors Guild awarded Reggie Kelly for Best Direction and the Best Ensemble award went to the cast which included Cornell Calhoun, S. J. Hannah, Terri Singleton, Kelvin Willingham, Joyce Meadows as Blues Speak Woman and Dennis Chandler as Guitar Man.
More about the play… “Spunk” was adapted by Tony award winner George C. Wolfe and is based on three fables from folklorist and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Her trio of tales transcends cultural differences and addresses universal values. The play combines the richness of African-American dialogue with the underscored sultry sounds of the blues. It is a tender, intimate look at man’s common yearning to live a better life.
More about the music in the play… Composer Chic Street Man wrote the songs, along with the scored musical interludes. The author has also written in where the play’s lone musician, Guitar Man, may improvise. Plus this production at Karamu featured that character, as played By Dennis, singing two songs by the great bluesman Jimmy Reed. Since this bluesmaster was another one Dennis had the blessing of working with… he was overjoyed to sing and play Reed’s “Honey, What’s Wrong?” and “Bright Lights,BigCity”. (More about that below.)
More about the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre…. Karamu was first known as the Playhouse Settlement. It was founded by two white social workers, Rowena & Russell Jelliffe, as a recreation center. It became nationally known for its dedication to interracial theater and the arts. It is the oldest African-American Cultural Arts Center and the oldest African-American Theater in the United States. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the complex is located at E. 89th & Quincy in the city’s Fairfax community, (home to another world-renown institution, the Cleveland Clinic just two blocks north). Karamu is Swahili for “a place of joyful meeting”.
More about Dennis’ part in the play…. As the only musician, “Guitar Man” had more than a couple of interesting musical moments. He was seen throughout the three fables, playing his acoustic guitar, punctuating action with music. During most of that time, Dennis was seen and heard from stage right. But, in his solo number, he took center-stage when he did Jimmy Reed‘s “Bright Lights, Big City”, (thus getting to pay a little homage to one of his “teachers”, too). Another number paired him with Joyce Meadows as “Blues Speak Woman”. They sang a musical repartee in a duet that brought the house down. That showstopper was the song titled, “I’m Too Good Looking For You”. The third act opening-scene featured dancer Terri Singleton and had her jumpin’ to his jivin’ guitar. Later in the third act, “Blues Speak Woman”, along with S.J. Hannah, got to boogie to the beat of “Guitar Man” doing another Jimmy Reed song, “Honey, What’s Wrong?” (The rest of the cast would join in singing, too.)
About his audition… Dennis was called “a Godsend” and “the right one for the role” by the director, executive director, cast and crew alike. Why? When the show was already 5 weeks into rehearsal and just 2 nights away from its first preview night, they still had no guitarist! To explain, the director said, “Of all the guitarists who auditioned, many had a feel for the blues, but none could read music.” “Spunk” is a theatrical play and as such, there is a partial score he said, “the composer wants played as written.”
About playing the Blues…. Take note, music students. Recall that adage about learning the theory behind the music one makes? At Dennis’ very own audition it proved so true. He said he was glad he could accommodate Reggie Kelly‘s vision of what the director wanted “the sheet music to do”. Another dictum that proved out? “Blues is a feeling not just a form. You can put form on paper but you can’t put feeling on paper!” He said he felt proud he could show good form along with good feeling, too, so to speak.
Back to about Karamu… It is a known fact among actors, that being invited to perform there is an honor. Hence the reason so many actors who have “made it” i.e., on Broadway, in the movies, on television, etc., always come back to Karamu.
But, back to Karamu for Dennis…. meant doing “Spunk” was a homecoming of sorts. Being it’s an honor to be invited even once; coming back this second time was also really appreciated. To explain… It was back in ’94 that Dennis first did Karamu. It was thanks to arts acquaintance Dick Gregory and the humanitarian’s sister-in-law/ writer Martha Smith and cousin Web Fleming.
Dennis and baritone Fleming, a former Wings Over Jordan soloist, were the only entertainers to be invited to perform for the New Day Press Black History Month Celebration. After performing a program of blues and Negro spirituals to a sold-out house, they especially enjoyed the standing ovation they received. To fully understand how meaningful it was for Dennis to play that same stage again, his “second time around”, fit and healthy… read the page titled “The Journey“.
To those involved at Karamu…. Dennis asked to post a shout out of thanks to the cast, crew and staff, who along with all the audiences there, made him feel so welcome. As a first time actor treading the boards, he relished the rave reviews and the awards. He gives thanks to all the folks there but, most of all; Dennis thanks God for opening the door.
Thanks again to all.
Liz Chandler aka “Mrs. Dennis”