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Dark Days for the Black Arts

The theater at Karamu House has enjoyed a resurgence. But can it weather the infighting that threatens to destroy it?

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The board also found that the long-simmering tension between Spivey and Ashe hadn't cooled off. Early this year, two employees — both on the administrative side, not in the theater — charged that Spivey had verbally abused them. One said Spivey had sent her nasty notes, though she didn't save them. Others viewed the claims as being out of character for a man widely known for his easy-going demeanor.

"I have no doubt Greg orchestrated it," says one Spivey ally, who points out that one of the accusers had been at Karamu for only a few months and is no longer there.

Another person close to Karamu's theater, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalls tales of another employee having Ashe approach him "nose to nose with threats."

"The complaint never went to the board," the source says, "and human resources tried to get him to drop it. He refused and later was fired."

In the spring, Waters sent a letter to Ashe and Spivey, asking them to sit down with the board and address the situation. "Terrence said he would do it, and Greg said he would too," she says. "We had a meeting set up, maybe in May, and it was canceled. I don't remember why. From there, things went downhill."

That summer, board members supportive of Ashe told Waters and Dick that an attorney had been secured to ensure that they resigned from the board, according to Waters. The ultimatum stemmed from what Waters vaguely calls "a situation with an employee" — an employee Waters and Dick scarcely knew. (Waters claims she can't go into further details for legal reasons.)

"That was their way to get rid of us," Waters says, "because they knew we were going to hold Greg Ashe accountable and that things were going to change."

By August, both Waters and Dick had been ousted by the other members — a majority of whom are allies of Ashe, they say.

Ashe did not respond to e-mailed requests to share his side of the story.

Board member Andrew Jackson, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Partnership's Commission on Economic Inclusion — and an ally of Ashe, according to the former members — did not return calls for this story prior to Ashe's media embargo. Likewise, other board members contacted after Ashe's decree have not responded to interview requests.

As the turmoil was brewing, Jones says that the board's legal counsel suddenly demanded he fill out a conflict-of-interest form that would have barred him from participating in Karamu plays. Never mind that he'd been performing at Karamu since January 2008, while he was still a county commissioner. All of a sudden, things changed.

"I want to perform wherever I want, whenever I want, to build my career," Jones says. "I had created some of the largest fund-raisers in their history. I initiated the Karamu Hall of Fame banquet. I chaired the resource-development committee. I had been an active board member, but when faced with that choice, it was a simple choice for me, given where I am in my life."

Feeling pinched, Jones walked away in October. He says that his resignation, coming on the heels of Waters' and Dick's forced departures, precipitated the resignation of still another board member: Shilpi Banerjee, an attorney at Cleveland Clinic. When contacted for this story, she didn't cite a specific reason for her departure.

The loss of almost half the boardroom in two months would raise eyebrows in any organization; at Karamu it's been a well-kept secret.

Reached in mid-November, Deena Epstein of the Gund Foundation and Kathleen Cerveny of the Cleveland Foundation both were unaware of the board turnover or the issues behind it.

Jones is cautiously optimistic about the remaining board's potential to right the ship. "The current chair [Chase VP David Reynolds] recognizes Greg's deficits and won't give him an easy time of it," he says. Reynolds could not be reached for comment.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Karamu House has just completed a powerful production of Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box, a play about hospice care and three families dealing with a member's imminent death.

Outside in the cramped lobby, the interracial cast lines up in front of a row of black metal chairs, their cushions upholstered in a green and red floral pattern last seen in your grandmother's house. The cast members warmly greet the emerging audience and engage in banter with friends. Spivey, a blocky man with a broad, friendly face and a flowing mane of long, slender dreadlocks, floats among them, greeting everyone who passes by. The actors are effusive in their praise of Spivey.

"He's the best director," says Ken Parker, who has acted in many Karamu productions under Spivey. In Little Tommy Parker, he played a dying man torn between his party-girl ex-wife and the gay lover who has been his caretaker. "A lot of us are here because of him."

"He gave me my first break," says Jeanne Madison, who played the ex-wife.

Once everyone has left, Spivey sits in the more spacious lobby of Karamu's larger Jelliffe Theater, surrounded by production stills from past plays. He talks warmly about theater past, present, and future. And he's demonstrating what almost everyone says about him: that he's always in the theater, and that he can talk about theater all night if you'll let him.

At one point, he recalls his arrival at Karamu, being greeted by Gerry McClamy and promotions director Vivian Wilson with hugs that knocked back his Texas Stetson, causing a wooden African mask to fall off the wall and break in two.

"I'm thinking it's some sort of voodoo thing," he recalls with a smile. "I'm doomed."

So far, and insofar as his impact on the Karamu theater goes, Spivey has been charmed. Reviews have been good and — perhaps more telling — more and more people are stepping up and asking to get involved. More people than they could ever handle, in fact.

But Spivey is cagy about his relationship with Greg Ashe. When asked about the rumor that he's threatened to quit once The Shadow Box closes, he only smiles. In fact, The Shadow Box has since given way to Karamu's seasonal war horse, Black Nativity, and Spivey remains at the helm.

Ousted board member Neil Dick, for one, hopes things remain that way.

"I want to see Karamu not just survive, but to grow to that level I know it can become," he says. "It would be a terrible loss [if Terrence left]. I know for a fact there are other entities that would love to have him, and unfortunately several of them are not here in Cleveland."

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