The new New Deal

by Bob Abelman

Between 1933 and 1943, during the depths of the Great Depression and into the early years of World War II, federal tax dollars employed artists and craft workers of various media and with varying levels of experience, and kept them from poverty and despair.

In addition to providing relief, the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and other government-sponsored art programs promoted American art and culture by giving more Americans access to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt decorously labeled “an abundant life.” It enabled Americans all across the country to see an original painting for the first time, attend their first professional live theater or dance production, or take their first music or drawing class. An enormous volume of public art intended for education and civic engagement – including 2,500 murals and 18,000 sculptures – was created without restriction to content or subject matter and put on display.  

Arshile Gorky works on “Activities on the field,” his 1936 mural project for Newark Airport sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. | Photo / Federal Art Project, Photographic Division

“Artists have been given something more precious than their daily bread,” said social critic Lewis Mumford at the time. “(They have received) the knowledge that their work has a destination in the community.” The public art of the New Deal reflected a vast array of traditions and cultures that served not only to celebrate the nation’s diversity but to reflect and build a common, collective national identity through art.

Never before or since has our government so extensively supported and sponsored the arts. Until now.

COVID-19 devastation by the numbers

The Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts report arts and culture contribute approximately $877.8 billion, or 4.5%, to the nation’s gross domestic product annually, according to 2017 data. Prior to the pandemic, more than 5 million wage-and-salary workers were employed in the arts and cultural sector.

In the wake of COVID-19, the arts have been devastated. Research published by the Brookings Institution reports the performing arts have been the most at risk and the hardest hit of all the creative industries. More than 52% of actors and 55% of dancers were out of work in the third quarter of last year, when the national unemployment rate was 8.5%, The New York Times reported. Since the shuttering of arts venues in March to the end of the last calendar year, it was estimated that nationwide almost 1.4 million performing and fine arts related jobs and $42.5 billion in sales have been lost. And the numbers are mounting as venues remain closed or open to sparse, socially distanced occupancy.

The live entertainment industry has missed out on $9.7 billion of box office sales, according to Pollstar, a trade publication. The larger economic hit from lost sponsorships, concessions, merchandise and other related revenues may be closer to an estimated loss of $33 billion. 

Broadway theaters were among the first businesses to shut down in March 2020, and according to the Actors’ Equity Association, more than 1,100 actors and managers lost work. From May 2018 to May 2019, shows across all 41 theaters garnered more than $1.83 billion in sales. But according to a report published by the Broadway League, a national organization of theater owners and show producers, only around $300 million in ticket sales were generated in 2020 before theaters were shuttered and midtown Manhattan became nearly deserted. Thousands more working touring shows that contributed $3.8 billion to the local economies of about 200 U.S. cities became unemployed.     

In March, we witnessed the abrupt closure of nearly all the nation’s 5,477 cinemas, the Los Angeles Times reported. In Los Angeles County, where all five major film studios – Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Studios – are housed, job losses in the creative community reached 24% between February and December 2020. Disney alone saw a $7.4 billion loss to its operating income in the last fiscal year, despite its effective shift in distribution to streaming services.  

Locally in Cuyahoga County, arts, entertainment and recreation is a $1.35 billion industry that employs more than 10,000 people, one-third of whom lost jobs due to the pandemic, ideastream reported in October. Downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Foundation – a consortium of performing arts venues that attract about 1 million visits a year – estimated a loss of about $4 million and laid off or furloughed nearly 200 employees between March 2020, when its theaters were first closed, and the end of the calendar year. Playhouse Square has canceled or postponed 680 performances, the organization reported late last year. 

In a May 2020 press release, Gina Vernaci, Playhouse Square CEO and president, said, “Your health and safety are our top priority,” announcing the postponement of the KeyBank Broadway series.

And, of course, local theaters, concert halls, nightclubs and arenas across the region have had thousands of live performances canceled or indefinitely postponed, leaving artists unemployed or severely underemployed. But there has been help.

A New New Deal

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill signed into law last March in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic. The bill included the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered small businesses – including arts organizations – forgivable loans to help them keep their workforce employed during COVID-19.  

Within 18 days of the bill’s approval, the National Endowment for the Arts was awarded almost $75 million, 40% of which was to be distributed to state and territorial arts agencies and regional arts organizations, including the Ohio Arts Council, for their funding of local programs. By law, the agency had to allocate the money by Dec. 30, 2020 which, according to its Executive Director Donna S. Collins in a press release, “will go a long way in supporting the recovery and resilience of Ohio’s creative economy.”

The OAC issued 296 grant awards totaling $20 million in economic relief for the arts and culture sector. Approximately $2.66 million was set to be distributed to arts and culture nonprofits through Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the public agency that distributes some $12 million a year in county cigarette tax revenue to cultural nonprofits in the area. An additional $1.3 million was given to Arts Cleveland, which distributed the relief funds to some 425 Cuyahoga County artists and 38 performing arts businesses, of which 23 are owned by minorities or women, local media reported. 

“The CARE funds we received though the Ohio Arts Council and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture have helped survive the loss of a season plus two plays from last spring,” says Bob Taylor, executive director of Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. “They allowed us to hold onto the reserves we strategically and rigorously built over the last decade so that we will be ready for when what’s coming next comes along.”

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program

In December 2020, tucked into Congress’ massive, year-end $2.3 trillion relief package, was the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history: $15 billion in relief grants earmarked to help save the arts and entertainment industry. First crack at the money went to those venue owners who could demonstrate losses of 90% of their earned total revenue because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the Washington Post reported. Allowable expenses included equipment, rent, insurance, worker protection expenditures and mortgage payments.  

The PPP was also extended, allowing many arts organizations to apply for a second forgivable loan from a pool of $284 billion. The NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities were given a budget increase of $5.2 million each ($167.5 million each in FY2021) and were tasked with distributing additional funding to nonprofit arts organizations across the country. 

American Rescue Plan Act

Most recently, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed this March. The Act provides an additional $270 million in funds to the NEA and NEH, $175 million in emergency funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an additional $7.25 billion for PPP and an additional $1.25 billion for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program program. It is expected this round of funding will support about 234,000 jobs, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.   

The cast of “Ghost Girls,” part of the “5 x 15 Minutes” musicals, a partnership between the Beck Center for the Arts, Baldwin Wallace University and the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. | Photo / Screenshot, directed by Vicky Bussert

The impact of relief funding

How do relief payments affect arts organizations on an individual basis? For one thing, the funding provides for sustainable staffing. 

For many arts organization, the first and most accessible form of assistance came in the form the forgivable loans made available through the Paycheck Protection Program. The first round of the PPP, which issued loans from March to August 2020, helped 5.2 million small businesses keep 51 million American workers employed, according to the Small Business Administration.  

This past December, as many small businesses continued to struggle and the PPP was renewed, roughly 60,000 borrowers were approved for the forgivable loans during the first week of the reopening, noted the SBA. A portion of the available funds were set aside for first-time borrowers.  

In Northeast Ohio, some larger organizations like downtown Great Lakes Theater did not have to lay off a single administrative or production staffer thanks to these loans. 

“When we are ready to go back to work and deliver live theater – hopefully in the fall, along with our Playhouse Square partners – we will have our team in place and hit the ground running,” Taylor says.  

André Gremillet, president and CEO of The Cleveland Orchestra, says, “We applied for and received a PPP loan in the amount of $5.5 million dollars, which was absolutely essential in order to be able to pay our employees – including our musicians – in 2020.”

For some smaller arts organizations with limited staffing, such as Cleveland Heights’ Ensemble Theatre, PPP loans were “a lifeline,” according to Executive Artistic Director Celeste Cosentino.

Katrice Monee Headd in Maelstrom Collaborative Arts’ “ACTIVATE 2020” storefront window visual and performing arts project. | Photo / Kaitlin K. Walsh

The funds also allowed for creative pivoting. For Gordon Square’s Maelstrom Collaborative Arts, the PPP and other forms of federal funding “allowed us to pivot, creatively,” says connectivity director Marcia Custer.  

Similarly, Laura Wiegand, executive director of Les Délices, suggests grants distributed by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture and the OAC enabled the Cleveland-based chamber ensemble to think outside the box. Adds the company’s artistic director Debra Nagy, “We emerged from the pandemic as providers of virtual interactive programming and pivoted from audio to audio/video recording for later distribution. It changed our model of creativity.”  

Verb Ballets dancers Emily Dietz, from left, Lieneke Matte, Kelly Korfhage and Kate Webb perform “KL3668.” | Photo / Kolman Rosenberg Photography

The same goes for Verb Ballets in Shaker Heights, which was forced to close its doors last March. According to producing artistic director Margaret Carlson, “we could not have continued without relief funding,” which not only reopened the doors six weeks later by providing payroll for the company’s 14 dancers and six staff, but it allowed Verb Ballets to invest in the equipment necessary to transition a rehearsal studio into a recording studio, and purchase the technology necessary to deliver performances virtually. “Doing so,” adds Carlson, “has significantly expanded the company’s audience nationally and internationally.”  

Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan notes that everything takes longer and requires more resources to produce art under the current circumstances. But the grants have allowed CPT, located in Gordon Square, to “dive in” and reinvent its working model, he says. 

Darelle Hill, from left, Samantha Cocco, Christina Johnson, Zach Palumbo and CorLesia Smith in Karamu House’s “Freedom After Juneteenth, Episode Two.” | Photo / Nathan Migal

Another impact is on programming. Karamu House, in the Fairfax neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, and CPT were among the many local theaters to receive a grant from the OAC CARES program. But they were the only two Cleveland theaters of the 30 historically under-resourced Midwestern arts and culture organizations to receive a grant from Arts Midwest’s share of the United States Regional Arts Resilience Fund.  

This first round of funding – consisting of $50,000 to $55,000 grants for each of the 30 organizations, underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – focused on rural communities, Indigenous communities and communities of color. Karamu is the oldest producing African American theater in the nation, and CPT is home to the Latino theater company Teatro Publico de Cleveland. Grant sources helped make possible Karamu’s original virtual theater social justice series “Freedom on Juneteenth” and facilitated CPT’s use of technology to extend its virtual reach into the community, and to take creative risks in the development of hybrid performance art that merge film with live theater. 

When the dust settles

As might be expected, the New Deal’s Federal Art Project was met with some political opposition. Works of art that promoted social justice, challenged political beliefs or threatened cultural norms, for example, were seized upon by critics of President Roosevelt and used as fuel for the argument that the New Deal was bad for America. Many argued art projects should not be funded with taxpayer money. Several works of art that depicted controversial topics were destroyed by local officials uninterested in or fearful of radical, depressing or “un-American” subject matter.

Clearly, funding the arts is still a partisan issue. Recall that former President Donald Trump’s budgets for the past four years proposed the elimination of the NEA, NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as The New York Times reported.  

“As for now,” notes Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums in a recent Times article, “we are relieved with how things ended up (under the Biden administration). But we don’t take anything for granted.” 

Less funny than it could be, Karamu’s ‘Day of Absence’ delivers heavy message

By Bob Abelman

The pre-vaudeville minstrel shows of the mid-19th century are considered the first theatrical art form that was distinctly American. They featured white entertainers in blackface makeup performing comedy and song-and-dance routines that caricaturized plantation slaves for white audiences.
God bless us.

As one would imagine, minstrel shows were particularly popular in the South before the Civil War, as a way of reinforcing widely held racist stereotypes and countering the abolitionist movement.

A century later, in 1965, playwright Douglas Turner Ward borrowed this art form to shed light on the state of racism that was inspiring the civil rights movement. In his satirical fantasy play “Day of Absence,” which served to launch the pioneering Negro Ensemble Company in New York City, Southern whites were caricaturized by black actors appearing in whiteface and behaving as broadly as their old minstrel show counterparts.

The play takes place in a rural town somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. On a random Tuesday, the white residents wake up to find that all the people of color have mysteriously disappeared. As shoes go unshined, white-only public restrooms go uncleaned and babies are left uncared-for, the municipality devolves into stunned disarray and then utter chaos. There’s talk of a police officer going crazy when he has no black men to assault. A Klu Klux Klan member expresses his disappointment that he wasn’t the one to drive “The Blacks” out of town and hopes that they will return so he can do so.

“Day of Absence” is a light entertainment with a heavy message, the kind that finds you laughing and feeling peculiar doing so. It is an important play – a gateway play – that would eventually give rise to works like George C. Wolfe’s 1986 take-no-prisoners satire “The Colored Museum,” which says the unthinkable and says it with uncompromising wit and leaves its audience an emotional wreck.

Karamu has resurrected Ward’s one-act for reasons best left to the audience’s sense of social awareness.

Nathan A. Lilly directs a solid production housed within a red, white and blue performance space cleverly designed by Prophet D. Seay to resemble a minstrel show stage. Inda Blatch-Geib has dressed the performers in clownishly clashing costuming that denotes the satire that drives this play.

The one problem with this production is that most of the members of this talented ensemble (Lachaka A. Askew, Jeannine Gaskin, Jailyn Sherell Harris, Robert Hunter, Maya T. Jones, Austin Black Sasser, Prophet D. Seay, Nate Summers and Sherrie Tolliver) fail to find a rural stereotype to call their own and make it sufficiently whitewashed. Only Hunter as the corrupt and incompetent Mayor, Seay as a variety of red necked yokels and bumpkins, and Jones playing an assortment of male and female locals get what the playwright was going after.

As a result, this play is less funny than it could be. More importantly, it makes white audience members like me less uncomfortable than we should be and has black audience members laughing at caricatures that more closely resemble those of the old blackface minstrelsy. For research, the cast should watch TV reruns of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and use Boss Hogg, his idiot son Cletus Hogg, and Sheriff Rosco for inspiration. Ernest T. Bass from “The Andy Griffith Show” is also up for grabs.

“Dying is easy,” said famed 1940s performer Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed. “Comedy is hard.” Satire in whiteface is even harder. CV

‘Day of Absence’ at Karamu
WHERE: Arena Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 18
TICKETS & INFO: $25-$40, Call 216-795-7077 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at or visit 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 15, 2018.

Lead image: Jailyn Sherell Harris and Robert Hunter | Photo / Vince Robinson

Karamu fouls off a few while swinging for the ‘Fences’

By Bob Abelman

Actor Denzel Washington, who won a Tony in 2010 for his portrayal of protagonist Troy Maxson in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning “Fences,” recently led a $5 million fundraising effort to restore the playwright’s childhood home, to be completed in 2020.

While watching the current production of the play at Karamu, it is very easy to understand Wilson’s legacy and appreciate Washington’s passion for preserving where it began.

“Fences,” which is set in a lower-middle-class black section of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s, is one of the most successful and enthralling installments of Wilson’s highly celebrated 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The play’s title alludes to the hard-wood hedge middle-aged Troy (Darryl Tatum) is building to surround the small front yard of his weathered Hill District home, where he is master of all he surveys. It also references the emotional barrier that exists between him and those closest to him.

They include his wife Rose (Colleen Longshaw), who braves through his most erratic behaviors and core cruelty; teenage son Cory (Dar’Jon M. Bentley), whose football career Troy undermines in callous response to his own disappointments as a Negro League baseball player; Lyons (Dyrell Barnett), Troy’s abandoned and aimless 30-something son by a previous marriage; and younger brother Gabriel (Prophet D. Seay), whose war-time head injuries have rendered him childlike and vulnerable.

Only Troy’s pal Bono (Peter Lawson Jones) – who shared his time in prison, works by his side as a garbage man, and adores the man and his tall tales – remains largely impervious to his best friend’s mean-spiritedness and alienation. If we did not see the demeaning and demoralizing Troy through Bono’s rose-colored perspective and in his company, he would be a most unlikable character. Liking him is essential to our buying into the play’s heightened realism and the poetry the playwright offers in the form of rapid-fire discourse, soul-baring monologues and flinch-worthy confrontations.

Neither Tatum as Troy nor Jones as Bono made that easy on opening night.

Troy’s intense, stage-filling presence and quicksilver shifts in emotional states, including endearing flashes of playfulness and sexual impulse, are muted affairs in Tatum’s hands. His otherwise fine performance softens Troy’s edges and lacks variety in pitch, tone and intention, which does not serve this play.

And what should be unconditional and unwavering love on Bono’s part is unconvincing in Jones’ rather pallid portrayal. Both actors find the humor in the script, which is delightful, but they don’t mine the drama that also resides there. This is most evident in the first act, where it is most important.

Mining drama is left to the magnificent Longshaw, who finds strength, stability and dimensionality in Rose and through whose eyes we best sense Troy’s redeeming qualities. The other members of the ensemble also turn in clearly delineated and authentic performances. All this gives life to Wilson’s language.

The entire cast finds better balance in the second act, but by that time, Wilson’s brilliant storytelling and Tony Sias’ intuitive direction have taken over to carry this powerful play to its poignant conclusion.

Perhaps the best part of the second act is the introduction of actor Logan Dior Williams. Playing 7-year-old Raynell, the child Troy conceived with another woman and who is being raised by Rose, Williams steals the show when she shares with Cory a song Troy had apparently taught them both. This is a tender moment in a play strategically and painfully devoid of them, so it comes as a brief reprieve as well as an absolute pleasure.

All this takes place on a cramped patch of front yard realistically rendered by scenic designer Richard Morris Jr. His and lighting designer Colleen Albrecht’s attention to detail is impressive save for a prominently placed tree that could not look more artificial and a sky that does not register the passing of the seasons suggested in the script.

This Karamu production fouls off a few curveballs delivered by the playwright, but it never swings and misses while going for the “Fences.” CV

“Fences” at Karamu
WHERE: Jelliffe Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 21
TICKETS & INFO: $20-$40, Call 216-795-7077 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at or visit 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 18, 2018.

Lead image: Darryl Tatum as Troy and Colleen Longshaw as Rose. | Photo / Vince Robinson

Darius J. Stubbs (from left), Justin C. Woody and Treva Offutt. Photo / Michelle Berki

Karamu’s brilliant ‘Passing Strange’ testifies about the power of art, love

By Bob Abelman

There is certainly no shortage of coming-of-age memory plays, where an older character sentimentally reflects back on the trials and tribulations of his younger self. But few are delivered through music and verse and fewer still are as intriguing, engaging and brilliantly performed as Karamu’s production of “Passing Strange.”

More punk rock performance art than traditional drama, the play features a fellow in his 40s, known only as Narrator (a soulful and wonderfully accessible Darius J. Stubbs), who is looking back at the choices he made as a budding artist in his 20s, known only as Youth (an infectiously likable and passionate Justin C. Woody). Youth is trying to find his voice as a songwriter as well as a comfort level with his blackness.

The 2008 Tony Award-winning musical is an autobiographical fiction written by rock ’n’ roller Stew and his bandmate Heidi Rodewald, who hail from the L.A. indie music subculture of the 1980s, which is when “Passing Strange” largely takes place.

Every album created by their band, called Stew and the Negro Problem, is known to reflect a vast artistic vocabulary and create a carefully crafted universe unto itself. The same holds true for “Passing Strange.” The show is a joyful testament to the power of music though you’ll hardly walk away from the theater humming a tune from a highly eclectic song list where the inclusion of rock, punk, funk and gospel somehow makes perfect sense.

Each song is supported by an outstanding on-stage band consisting of Ed Ridley, Jr. on keyboard, Elijah Gilmore on drums, Kevin Byous on guitar, Bradford L. McGhee on bass, and vocalist Chantrell Lewis sharing the harmonies.

The world of this play interweaves song, verse and dialogue and allows for four exceptionally talented cast members (Carlos Antonio Cruz, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Francis Miller and CorLesia Smith) to play three highly diverse characters each, one in each city visited during Youth’s journey of self-discovery.

His journey begins in the middle-class L.A. home that Youth shares with his protective, church-going mother (the magnificent Treva Offutt), which is so buffered from tough neighborhoods like Compton and Westmont that a popular girl (Miller) he meets when thinking about joining the church’s youth choir will only date him if he stops passing for white and blackens up a little.

Finding nothing to inspire his art at home or in church, Youth leaves for Amsterdam where he discovers drugs, sex with Marianna (Miller) and a loving family with Joop (Cruz), Renata (Smith) and Christophe (McElroy).

But with no friction to stimulate his creativity, he moves to still-Communist Berlin and comes across a rebellious performance art scene populated with the aggressive Sudebey (Miller) and Hugo (McElroy) and led by the outrageously anarchist Mr. Venus (Cruz). There, Youth falls in love with Desi (Smith) and ups his angry “negritude” by passing for ghetto to gain the favor of the radical arts community he has embraced.

His mother’s passing ends his journey and the play, leaving Narrator to reflect on his life-long battle with reality and share with the audience what he and Youth have learned from it: “Life is a mess that only art can fix.”

This show is physically demanding and emotionally exhausting for these seven players. They not only lean into each and every song to mine their gorgeous harmonies, share the meaning in their poignant lyrics and wail when required – which is often – but they do so while performing Kenya R. Woods’ high-energy and wonderfully engaging choreography and never leaving the captivating characters they have created.

All this takes place on a two-tier stage void of storytelling trappings, which leaves the performances and Rob Peck’s lighting and sound design to fend for themselves.

Audiences will surely marvel at the hard work put in by director Nathan A Lilly to make it all look so easy.

On stage

“Passing Strange” performed by Karamu

WHERE: Arena Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through June 3

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7077 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 19, 2018.

Lead image: Darius J. Stubbs (from left), Justin C. Woody and Treva Offutt. Photo / Michelle Berki

Jeanne Madison (from left), Rebecca Morris, and Kimberly Sias. Photo / Colleen Albrecht

Karamu’s ‘Sassy Mamas’ goes from comedic to heartfelt in a heartbeat

By Bob Abelman

It would be wise for mid-life men to stay far, far away from Celeste Bedford Walker’s romantic comedy “Sassy Mamas,” which is getting its Ohio premiere at Karamu House.

The show revolves around three female best friends in the autumn of their lives who are in search of a May-December relationship on their own terms.

Jo Billie (Kimberly Sias) is a widowed hospital executive who desires a shallow, hard-bodied boy-toy to play with, no strings attached. Enter LaDonte (Cameron Woods), who meets all the prerequisites.

Mary (Rebecca Morris) was abandoned by her husband, is recently divorced and in desperate need of romance, which her sweet and inexperienced gardener Colby (Bryon Tobin) is more than happy to cultivate.

Wilhemina (Jeanne Madison) is looking for love but can’t find the time while serving as an advisor to the President of the United States. Wes (Michael Head), a young, ex-jock journalist with 6-pack abs finds her.

This risqué comedy is all about female empowerment in the boardroom and the bedroom, with the young men in it serving as frequently shirtless fantasy fodder. The only place for older men in “Sassy Mamas” is as a doormat, the sagging butt of jokes about half-blind dates, and on the receiving end of one-liners about sex hampered by arthritis and augmented by Viagra.

Clearly aimed at audiences with two X chromosomes, “Sassy Mamas” reveals some amusing truths about life, love and menopause. It is written in the same effervescent spirit of “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and is equally heartfelt in its portrayal of female friendship.

This production boasts absolutely charming and immediately endearing performances by everyone on stage, with Sias, Morris and Madison handling the comedy and the poignancy with equal aplomb. The show is staged with the quick pace and seamless fluidity of a sitcom by Tony Sias, the theater’s President and CEO, who is making his Karamu directorial debut.

The action takes place in three condos at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., decorated to reflect the personalities of their respective occupants. So does their wardrobe, with Inda Blatch-Geib responsible for the spot-on scenic and costume designs. Ambient sound and cool jazz between scenes is supplied by Jeremy Dobbins.

Mid-life men should seriously consider dropping off their wives at the theater entrance, finding safe-haven elsewhere for two hours, and returning with a new-found interest in gardening.

“Sassy Mamas”

WHERE: Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through March 4

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7077 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on February 12, 2018.

Lead image: Jeanne Madison (from left), Rebecca Morris, and Kimberly Sias. Photo / Colleen Albrecht

Ammen T. Suleiman (from left), Natalie El Dabh and LaShawn Little. Photo / Michelle Berki

Karamu’s ‘The Lake Effect’ more bluster than blizzard

By Bob Abelman

One of the hardest things about being a playwright must be coming up with a clever script, handing it over to a theater company, and hoping that there is some resemblance between what is on the page and what is on the stage.

Considering that Rajiv Joseph penned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize nominated “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” received the 2013 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, and earned the 2015 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for “Guards at the Taj,” surely his one-act “The Lake Effect” is more fascinating, funnier and faster than the version of it being performed in its Ohio premiere at Karamu House.

The play takes place during a few frigid nights in Cleveland, amidst a lake effect snow storm. Bernard (LaShawn Little), a bookie, stops by the Indian restaurant he regularly visits, hungry for a plate of lamb biryani and some conversation with his close friend Vinnie, the restaurant’s owner. Instead, he finds Vinnie’s angry and estranged son (Ammen T. Suleiman), who has returned from New York upon receiving word that his father is bankrupt and selling the restaurant and who is reunited with his sister (Natalie El Dabh) upon their father’s sudden death.

The trio examine the past, learning about Vinnie and each other’s relationship with him through a piecemeal conversation filled with intimate revelations, exposed secrets and unsettling facts. And they each consider a future influenced by this newfound knowledge as they struggle to find a place in the world.

But in this production, in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre and under Celeste Cosentino’s meagre direction, the play lacks tension, intrigue and the humor embedded deep within Joseph’s dialogue.

Rather pedestrian performances turned in by Suleiman as Vijay and El Fabh as Priya make it so. Their acting is artificial and set at two speeds – idle and irate – and when the performers are not speaking, the acting is nonexistent. What should be played as relatable comes across as unlikable. Little, on the other hand, is a delight as Bernard – affable, vulnerable, always interesting but sadly outnumbered on stage.

The pacing in this production is off as well. Flat moments kill the play’s subtle humor and tender moments. And in the intimate Concert Hall performance space where designers Walter Boswell and Steven Barton have retrofitted a nicely rendered restaurant dining area, the performers move tentatively and always as if instructed to do so.

“The Lake Effect” is an intelligent and nuanced work, but not so you’d know it from this Karamu production.

On stage

“The Lake Effect”

WHERE: Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 26

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7070 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 5, 2017.

Lead image: Ammen T. Suleiman (from left), Natalie El Dabh and LaShawn Little. Photo / Michelle Berki

When Northeast Ohio’s theaters collaborate, audiences benefit

By Bob Abelman

Theater is often described as a collaborative art – a joining of talents on stage and behind it. But collaboration most often takes place within producing theater companies and not between them.

Standing in the way of cooperative companies and creative partnerships is the significant competition that exists for rears to fill the tiers.

And because ticket sales to season subscribers and walk-in audiences account for less than 50 percent of the cost of doing business, local theater companies are also in competition for community and government resources, foundation support, corporate underwriting and the contributions of individual philanthropists to subsidize their work.

In short, collaboration is the equivalent of sleeping with the enemy.   

And yet we have seen an influx of theater partnerships in recent years. Some are fairly innocuous, such as when a consortium of local theaters comes together to host a joint audition for an upcoming season. Others reflect a temporary coming together that serves to support the arts in a community, such as when theater companies cross-promote or offer discounted tickets to each other’s work in playbills and on social media.

But, increasingly, there are companies willing to pool resources in order to share the financial costs associated with artistic risk-taking and innovation. Many theaters are seeing collaboration as a way to fill the creative gaps between what they must do to survive, what they can do, and what they would like to do. And there are partnerships motivated by the desire to give emerging artists at one venue a larger or more diverse platform at others.

We see all this happening in major cities with vibrant theater communities. Just recently, in a show of support for new plays, the Second Stage Theater in New York and the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles agreed to commission a series of world premiere works by American writers that will be staged first in California and then on Broadway.

Here in Cleveland, we also see collaboration. And we asked the artistic and managing directors of partnering professional theaters about the costs and benefits – for the respective companies and for their audiences – of having such strange bedfellows.    

A May-December romance:

Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University

Since 1999, under artistic director Scott Spence’s guidance, Lakewood’s Beck Center for the Arts has systematically worked toward professionalizing its theater offerings, including the provision of Equity contracts for actors. It is now recognized as one of the stronger, year-round professional theaters that produce musicals.   

For the past six years, Beck Center’s annual production schedule has included one musical infused with young talent found due south on the small Berea campus of Baldwin Wallace University. There, in its conservatory of music, is a musical theater program under Victoria Bussert’s direction that ranks high among the elite programs in the country. Within the program resides a pool of talented undergraduates who, upon graduation or sooner, have been landing agents and lead roles on Broadway and London’s West End.

As the musical theater program grew over the years, the on-campus stage facilities shared with BW’s opera and theater programs proved limiting in size and availability. Having worked at the Beck Center as a freelance director, Bussert worked out a formal partnership with Spence’s theater, where the students and the faculty design team are hired on as professionals. Mainstage collaborations have included “Carrie,” “In the Heights,” and most recently, “Bring It On.” Canvas recently spoke to Bussert and Spence, who describe the partnership:

Bussert: Scott and I have been able to choose projects that are attractive to the Beck Center audiences and accommodate the nature of our young casting population and our educational mission. Everything we do at BW has to have an educational element, so I am always looking for performance opportunities that teach the kids new skill sets.

Spence: This partnership gives us a greater opportunity to seek out those shows that have appeal to younger audiences and require a cast of younger actors. Every theater has an obligation to its older subscriber base, but it must also vary its product in order to invest in tomorrow’s audiences.

Bussert: Remember, these are college students who all have choir commitments up to their junior year, a full academic and performance skills course load, workshops and workouts at ballet boot camp, auditions and rehearsals for other projects.   

Spence: Once we were able to work out a scheduling formula, this partnership has been nothing but fantastic.

Bussert:  The 20-minute drive from Berea gives the students’ brains time to shift into “I’m leaving as a student and arriving as a professional.” And their experience at Beck – the shorter rehearsal time on stage and the longer production schedule, the working with professionals who do not operate the same way their teachers do, the audiences who are paying customers and not just supportive colleagues – offers valuable insight into the life of a working professional actor.

Spence: Just recently, I went to Columbus to do a Congressional tour and meet with the Ohio Arts Council. The council had taken notice of this partnership between the Beck Center and BW, to the point where it said it wanted to work with us to not only form a statewide model for academic and professional collaborations but a national model as well. We are pretty jazzed about this.

A long-distance affair:

Great Lakes Theater/Idaho Shakespeare Festival/Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland.

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Roger Mastrioianni

Charles Fee holds a unique position in the American theater scene. He is the producing artistic director of three independently operated, professional theater companies – Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, Idaho (which he joined in 1991), Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland (starting in 2002), and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Lake Tahoe, Nevada (since 2010) – that have created an innovative production-sharing alliance.

Prior to the partnership, each theater was in a state of creative and financial duress. “We were all spreading our resources so thin that no one’s actually creating real work at real wages for anyone,” says Fee in a 2011 interview during the early stages of this alliance.

“Unlike co-producing models, our collaboration creates year-round opportunities for our artists and our production staffs by extending contracts across all three cities,” Fee says. “In other words, we create all of the work seen in our three cities.” And because ideas and information about marketing and other logistic considerations are shared between companies, each respective staff operates with greater speed and efficiency.

The first show Fee staged upon his arrival at Great Lakes Theater was the “Much Ado About Nothing” production he had just orchestrated at Boise.

After Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival joined the alliance, its production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” had previously played in Boise, where several weeks before, the sets, costumes, props and performers were trucked 2,000 miles from Cleveland, where the show had been built and premiered.

More than 60 productions have been shared since Cleveland joined the alliance. 

“Because our strategic alliance’s business model affords extended work opportunities for artists and production personnel,” notes Fee, “we are able to attract and retain a truly extraordinarily creative team that has found a remarkable chemistry over time. We’re not starting from scratch with a new collection of people with each production. We’re working with a core group of artists that have collaborated together for many years. This level of collaboration enables us to deepen our work as a company. And I think audiences benefit immensely as a result.”

From flirtation to fling:

Dobama Theater and Karamu House

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood.

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic
director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Photo by AJ Abelman

In 1915, a pair of Oberlin graduates opened a settlement house where people of different races and religions could come together. They soon discovered that the arts provided the perfect common ground. The Playhouse Settlement, renamed Karamu – a Swahili word meaning “place of enjoyment” – in 1941, quickly became a magnet and forum for some of the best African-American artists of the day.

During a “getting to know you” meeting in 2016 at which Tony Sias was introduced as Karamu’s new president and CEO, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director Nathan Motta shared a few ideas about a potential partnership intended to enrich their respective theater making. Motta had been appointed as Dobama’s fifth artistic director in 2013, which spurred the theater’s move to become the region’s newest full-time Equity House (along with the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater).

These two theaters have occasionally flirted with each other in the years since Dobama was founded in 1959. Most recently, after leaving its long-time residence on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights in 2005 but before finding its current home on Lee Road, the company launched a highly successful co-production with Karamu of the musical “Caroline or Change.” But now they are in the early stages of what could very well be a long term, comprehensive partnership. Canvas recently spoke to Motta and Sias, who discussed their collaboration:

Motta: This season, we did an artist exchange where our Ben Needham did the scenic design for “Rasheeda Speaking” at Karamu, and their production manager, Richard H. Morris Jr., designed “An Octoroon” at Dobama. Company members learning and communicating about how each of us have dealt with creative challenges and where we’ve succeeded and failed can help us all grow stronger.

Sias: That exchange went exceptionally well and set the tone for future creative collaborations. Dobama will also be leasing a rehearsal room, storage space and a break room at Karamu. Just recently, our artists (in “Sister Act”) rehearsed next door to theirs (in “Peter and the Starcatcher”), so people are getting to know each other and understand the culture of our respective institutions.

Motta: By encouraging artists we work with to work – and see work – at other places, they learn new ways of doing things and experience other artists’ approaches to theater making. We are also working toward making the creation of theater more cost effective, while increasing the quality of the artistic product. This is nothing but a good thing for our audiences.

Sias: The Karamu/Dobama partnership will also be a catalyst for community outreach, engagement and education. We’re launching a new joint program called Theatre Artists for Social Change (TASC) that will mount organized artistic responses to current news events that concern social justice. This way, our theaters can be responsive and proactive, and our art can play a bigger role in creating awareness and change.

Cleveland Play House’s promiscuity

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland.

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Michael C. Butz

Cleveland Play House, founded in 1915 and the recipient of the 2015 Regional Theatre Tony Award, has produced more than 100 world or American premieres, and during its long history, more than 12 million people have attended more than 1,600 productions. 

The CPH balances several collaborations at once to help maintain this level of productivity. One is an artistic and financial co-production partnership with a variety of sister theater companies across the country. The CPH and partnering theaters collaborate on show selection and artistic staffing, and share the costs of building, casting, rehearsing and staging the shows. 

In the 2016-17 season, “Baskerville” was built and opened in Cleveland and then went to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. “How I Learned to Drive” went to Syracuse Stage after its opening run at the CPH. “Disney’s Freaky Friday” was built and opened at La Jolla Playhouse and moved to the Alley Theatre in Houston after spending a few weeks at the CPH.

According to Kevin Moore, who became managing director of Cleveland Play House in 2007, “we are extremely selective about how many of these partnerships originate elsewhere. ‘Freaky Friday’ is our first received co-production in two years because a received co-pro means less work is available for our CPH production teams.” But co-productions allow for large and elaborate shows to be staged here that could not otherwise be afforded because of the production rights, the prominent directors and designers brought in, and the large number of cast members they require. (“Freaky Friday” has a cast of 17 and a nine-member band.)

The CPH has also done collaborative cross-disciplinary projects with the world-class Cleveland Orchestra, including the most recent commissioned world premiere of Quiara Alegria Hudes’s play for actor-and-orchestra, “The Good Peaches.” 

“These are landmark opportunities,” says Moore, “where audiences get to see work that would not otherwise be done by two venerable institutions. Financially, sharing costs allow both arts organizations to keep operating and innovating.” Suggests Laura Kepley, CPH artistic director, “The logistical challenges of this partnership are really artistic possibilities. For each group to get to expose its core audience to an adjacent art form is really exciting.”

Another collaboration is the jointly administered Case Western Reserve University/ Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts in Acting Program, which began in 1996. Students are not only taught by industry professionals from CWRU, they also receive training from CPH artists and internationally renowned guest artists. A third-year residency at CPH provides students with on-stage performance experience in CPH productions, such as last season’s “The Crucible.”

A 2009 partnership with Cleveland State University and the Playhouse Square Foundation helped finance the flexible 300-seat Outcalt Theatre and the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, which are shared by CPH, Playhouse Square, CSU and the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program. 

These are just a few of the partnerships taking place in the local arts community.  “The spirit of collaboration in Cleveland,” notes Kepley, “is the most generous and robust of any city I have ever worked in.” CV