Operatic Intentions: Shirley Graham Du Bois and Karamu House

Shirley Graham DuBois (Oberlin College Archives). https://afamwomen.historydesignlab.org/items/show/28.

By Caroline Budnick 

Shirley Graham Du Bois’s accomplishments and vision are often masked by those of her second husband, W.E.B Du Bois. Her own achievements as an artist, writer, and musician were attained with the assistance of Oberlin, OH. She graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory in 1935 with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Shirley Graham came to Oberlin when she was nearly 35 years old, with impressive music training under her belt from experiences such as studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, as well as working as a music teacher at Howard University and a music librarian at Morgan State University. This training led her to create her first opera, Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, while at Oberlin. The play debuted at the Cleveland Stadium Opera in the summer of 1932, making Shirley the first Black woman to write and stage an opera with an all-Black cast. Although the play was put on in Cleveland, the town of Oberlin was instrumental in the production of the play due to mentorship from Oberlin alumna, Rowena Jelliffe. 

Jelliffe was born Rowena Woodham on March 23, 1892 in Albion, Illinois. Her father, a college graduate, was a county clerk and her mother was educated at a ladies’ seminary. After Rowena’s father died, her mother applied to work as a rural mailman, but due to the stigma surrounding a woman holding this position full time, she was only able to work as a substitute mail carrier. Rowena completed eighth grade and then attended the Southern Collegiate Institute at Albion, a preparatory school founded by Oberlin College that hired women to give “inspiring, invigorating instruction there.”[1] She then enrolled at Oberlin College, where she met her partner Russell, and graduated in 1914 with a degree in psychology. While at Oberlin, Rowena became president of the Oberlin Women’s Suffrage League and campaigned for the right to vote.[2] Upon graduating, Russell and Rowena received graduate scholarships to study sociology at the University of Chicago. Through their graduate work on housing and cities, they became close with Jane Addams, a social reformer and feminist who founded one of the first settlement houses (homes built in poor, urban areas to provide education and social services) in the United States. Their interest in social education led Russell and Rowena to form Karamu House, a racially-integrated arts center, in Cleveland, OH.[3] 

The Karamu House did not begin as a theater, but rather as a settlement house since communities of “Jewish, Colored, and Italian peoples’ were being neglected.”[4] It was founded as The Playhouse Settlement in 1915, but was later renamed to Karamu House in the 1940s.[5] To draw the largely African-American population into the settlement house, Rowena began producing children’s plays with interracial casting. She became involved with an adult dramatic theater troupe, the Gilpin Players, in 1920.[6] In an article Rowena wrote in 1928, she stated that “both actors and audiences were empathetically opposed to Negro plays and thought them highly degrading to their race.” They all wanted heroic roles in dramas, while audiences requested comedies. By 1924, the Gilpin Players were performing “Negro plays,” specifically Ridgely Torrence’s Granny Maumee and Willis Richardson’s Compromise.[7] The actors were happiest performing these types of plays and thus in 1927 the Karamu Theater was founded.[8] Rowena, the white director, was pleased by this development stating, “It has been my fundamental purpose… to capture, preserve, and develop the dramatic qualities peculiar to the Negro race.”[9] Thus, Karamu House became the first African-American production theater in America, highlighting the talents of artists like Shirley Graham. 

Shirley Graham Du Bois first became involved with Karamu House in 1931, when she was entering Oberlin College. She sent a draft of her play Tom-Tom to the theater for consideration. The author of Shirley’s sole biography, Gerald Horne, claimed “the producers were suitably impressed, but wanted her to rework it for the Cleveland Opera.”[10] This draft was not a complete play at the time, so Russell and Rowena recommended that she adapt her work to fit for theater. The Jelliffes remembered the play when Laurence Higgins consulted them about works to appear in his “Theater of Nations” series, which was designed in order to present operas from around the world at the Cleveland Stadium Opera. Shirley’s Tom-Tom premiered with the Cleveland Stadium Opera in the summer of 1932.[11] 

The Jelliffe family was fundamental to Shirley’s success as a playwright, helping Tom-Tom come into existence as a professional production. Shirley was forever grateful to them, as when she was applying for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (which gave grants to African-American artists and intellectuals) for the 1940-1941 year, she identified her intentions as furthering the Black theater movement by writing her plays for Karamu House and Rowena. She wrote “I wish to set to work furnishing that first and most important need towards the development of a Negro theater… Together we shall raise the standards of production, produce better and better plays until our influence will be felt throughout the country.” Nearly ten years after Shirley sent her plays to Rowena, she still respected and wanted to work with her. Rowena went on to produce two of Shirley Graham Du Bois plays, Coal Dust in 1939 and I Gotta Home in 1940.[12] 

Shirley and Rowena’s creative partnership began at the emergence of Shirley’s playwriting career. This bred a long-standing relationship between the two women. Shirley would create the plays and Rowena would produce them.[13] Both came from similar backgrounds; each studied at Oberlin and discovered their passions through their experiences in the town. Rowena learned about social causes, leading her to create Karamu House, while Shirley continued her music education and staged a three-act opera. Shirley Graham benefited immensely from Rowena’s privilege, having two plays produced by the acclaimed Karamu House. Rowena saw herself as a facilitator to further the art of people who at the time needed her privilege in order to be respected or acknowledged. The Jelliffes remarked, “When people work and play together with their motivation drawn from the creative areas, they inevitably respect each other, assist each other in a thousand ways, and arrive at an attitude toward their associates that far transcends the bare bones of racial equality.”[14] Rowena and Shirley’s partnership cannot be discussed without recognizing the influence of Oberlin, OH on their respective creative ambitions. 

[1] Silver, Reuben Silver, “Jelliffe, Rowena Woodham,” Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Alice M. Robinson et al., (Greenwood Press, 1989), 470. 

[2] “Jelliffe, Rowena Woodham,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History Case Western Reserve University, Case Western Reserve University, case.edu/ech/articles/j/jelliffe-rowena-woodham.   

[3] Silver, “Jelliffe, Rowena Woodham,” 470-471.

[4] Regennia N. Williams, “Karamu House,” Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman (Taylor & Francis Group, 2004), 659. 

[5] Alesia Elaine McFadden, “The Artistry and Activism of Shirley Graham Du Bois: A Twentieth Century African American Torchbearer” (UMass Amherst, 2009). Open Access Dissertations, Paper 76, 169.

[6] “Jelliffe, Rowena Woodham.”

[7] George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997), 195. 

[8] Williams, “Karamu House,” 659. 

[9] Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, 196. 

[10] Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 59-60. 

[11] John Cullen Gruesser, Black on Black: Twentieth-Century African American Writing about Africa (University of Kentucky, 2000), 62.

[12] McFadden, 214. 

[13] Ibid., 214.

[14] John Selby, Beyond Civil Rights (The World Publishing Company, 1966), 39.

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