Karamu alumnus Terrence Spivey partners with pastor to launch new African-American theater company

Sunday, 05 November 2017, 09:25:11 PM. The Rev. Andrew D. Clark attributes the partnership that formed Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble to 'divine intervention.'

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Some marriages, the old saying goes, are made in heaven - and, given its locale, that might not be such a cliche when applied to the origins of Cleveland's newest theater company.

On Friday, Dec. 1, in a refurbished basement inside the Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center, Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble will debut its first production: James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," helmed by its founding director, Terrence Spivey.

The Rev. Andrew D. Clark, pastor of Holy Trinity, attributes his partnership with Spivey, the former artistic director of Karamu Theatre, to "divine intervention."

Clark had a church on Woodland Avenue near the corner of East 71st Street that he wanted to turn into an arts mecca. Spivey, a sought-after freelance director, had been searching for a place to launch his own company since leaving Karamu in March 2016, following an organizational shake-up that left him without an artistic home.

Politico turned actor and playwright Peter Lawson Jones had known both men for years and played matchmaker.

Joining forces made so much sense. "I have the space - you have the talents and gifts," Clark told Spivey. "What can we do?"

Both pastor and founding director see the company as an oasis in the arts desert surrounding the impressive stone castle of a church built it 1906.

Clark, who has pastored in Glenville for 14 years, purchased Holy Trinity from another congregation in 2014 and started renovations, beginning with its echoing sanctuary. The future home of Powerful Long Ladder was especially "horrific," says Clark - covered with cobwebs and soaking in 3 feet of water.

Today, it looks like a bright, friendly banquet hall boasting a small stage and an elegant expanse of brown stone flooring that warms the room.

"We're certainly getting a whole lot of positive reviews on the floor," Clark says. Turns out, it's not stone but recycled brown grocery bags, torn into strips and shellacked as part of a youth project. Economical hacks like that are how Clark has kept the total cost of the project - from the purchase of the property to the repairs - to about $230,000. (Although no overall budget has been discussed, says Spivey, the church's cultural arts center, in collaboration Spivey's company, has committed to producing four shows this season.)

The pastor also envisions turning the parsonage next door - where his administrative offices are located - into an artists' retreat. Eventually, he hopes the pioneering theater company will be the catalyst for an urban theater district, running from East 55th Street and Woodland Avenue down to East 79th Street.

"We're going to be as creative as possible," says Clark, starting with commissioning some dramatic lighting of Trinity's facade for the premiere of "The Amen Corner."

The play speaks to the sort of work both Clark and Spivey say they want to promote and preserve - plays that speak to African-American culture and history - produced by an urban theater that will "unearth some of this great talent that our community has," says Clark.

"We want to be able to honor the classics while engaging in thought-provoking works by new voices," says Spivey.

Since leaving Karamu, Spivey has directed hilarious, edgy works by provocateurs Robert O'Hara and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at other houses. Only time - and ticket sales - will tell how envelope-pushing Spivey's selections can be at Holy Trinity.

In February, the ensemble will stage the Ohio premiere of "Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men" by Dael Orlandersmith, an intense solo piece that deals with childhood abuse and its devastating consequences.

For the third production in April or May "we need to lighten up," says Spivey, with "Ain't Misbehavin', " a musical revue he plans to serve up "dinner theater-style."

The title of the company's fourth and final summer show is still percolating.

Right now, Spivey is focusing all his energy on bringing Baldwin to life in The Underground, the name of the new theater space, coined by the pastor's mother-in-law.

The play, which opened on Broadway in 1965, centers on Sister Margaret, a storefront preacher in Harlem. When her estranged husband, Luke, shows up on her doorstep, she must confront uncomfortable truths about her past in full view of her 18-year-old son David and her congregation.

Matchmaker Jones stars as Luke, a character he's wanted to play ever since losing the part to a classmate at Harvard University 42 years ago.

"I did not get cast, and it was absolutely devastating!" Jones says, laughing. (Jones, who shot "White Boy Rick" with Matthew McConaughey in Cleveland this spring, has no casting troubles these days. On Monday, Oct. 30, he'll headline Spivey's reading of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the second play in an August Wilson Cycle at Euclid's Shore Cultural Centre, where Spivey is an artistic associate.)

At Holy Trinity, Spivey is committed to staging at least one classic a season.

"I'm an advocate of classic black theater, because [if we don't do those plays] we're going to lose those voices. We're going to lose James Baldwin."

There are so many stories about the African-American experience - past and present - to tell, and Karamu, Cleveland's historic black theater, can't tell them all, says Spivey.

The name of the company was inspired by the title of a book of poems written "by the late, great Owen Dodson," says Spivey, "a pioneer director who ran the theater department at Howard University in [Washington] D.C."

The inscription on its title page reads:

"It take a powerful long ladder to climb to the sky

An catch the bird of freedom for the dark."

On the cover of its first printing in 1946, a black man stretches his arms, reaching for the stars.

"To me, it's like the ultimate reach," says Spivey. "The ultimate reach into the soul."

COMING UP

The Amen Corner

What: The Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble production of the play by James Baldwin. Directed by Terrence Spivey.

When: Friday, Dec. 1-Sunday, Dec. 10. Previews at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30. Opens at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays. There is no performance Friday, Dec. 8.

Where: Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center, 7209 Woodland Ave., Cleveland.

Tickets: $25; $15 for students and seniors. Go to Trinity.Boxoffice@gmail.com or call 216-417-4571.

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