The GILPIN PLAYERS, named after Charles Sidney Gilpin, was a theater troupe that performed at the KARAMU HOUSE, located in the lower Woodland and later FAIRFAX neighborhoods on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. Karamu House, formerly the Playhouse Settlement, is the oldest African-American theater in the United States. The founders maintained that all races would be welcomed. For some of the finest African American performers of the day, what was originally named the Playhouse Settlement, soon became a magnet. Actors, singers, printmakers, and authors were given an outlet to perform their crafts. The Gilpin Players were a prime example of actors being provided a performance space through Karamu House.


In 1920, the then Playhouse Settlement sponsored the Dumas Dramatic Club, which in 1922 was renamed the Gilpin Players after the prominent African-American actor Charles Sidney Gilpin. Gilpin was one of the 1920s’ most highly regarded stage actors. He appeared in several of New York City’s critical debuts, including the premiere of John Drinkwater’s 1919 Abraham Lincoln, and the premiere in 1920 of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. He then also toured with the play. In 1920, Gilpin was the first black American to win the annual award from The Drama League as one of the ten people who had done the most for American theatre that year. 

In the1930s, the Gilpin Players established a collaboration with Karamu alumnus LANGSTON HUGHES by premiering several of his plays, including When the Jack Hollars, Troubled Island, and Joy to My Soul. Hughes was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and Gilpin’s productions of his works essentially brought that movement to Cleveland. Sixty-five years after the Broadway production, Karamu House premiered Hughes’ Mule Bone as the finale of the 1996-1997 theatre season. In 1997, the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER noted: “Karamu returns to Harlem Renaissance status,” as the theatre season came to an end. 

In the 1940s, the group’s name was changed to the Karamu Players, and a more “integrated” casting policy was encouraged. Today Karamu (Swahili word meaning place of joyful meeting or gathering) continues the legacy of Gilpin as part of its mission “to produce professional theatre, provide arts education and present community programs for all people while honoring the African-American experience.”


Morgan McCommon