MXO ‘The Arts Unplugged’: ‘Day Of Absence’ A Classic Comedy Reimagined At Karamu House!

Karamu House

Posted November 9th 2018




Now through– November 18, 2018

Arena Theatre

Karamu House stages one-act satire by Douglas Turner Ward that explores a society without Black people.

Karamu House, the oldest multicultural performing arts center in the country, continues its mission to produce socially relevant, professional-quality entertainment, while honoring the African American experience.

Karamu presents Douglas Turner Ward’s one-act satire Day of Absence from Thursday, October 25, 2018 through Sunday November 18, 2018. Directed by Nathan A. Lilly, this laugh-out-loud comedy features Robert Hunter as The Mayor, Jailyn Harris as Jackson the Assistant, and Sherrie Tolliver as the TV Announcer. Performed in reverse minstrel style, the reimagined classic comedy runs in Karamu’s Arena Theatre.

Imagine an all-black cast, made up in white face, recounting the uncanny emergencies that occur when a Southern town is faced with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of all of its black citizens, infants are crying because they are being tended to by strange parents. The Mayor pleads for the President, Governor, and the NAACP to send him “a jackpot of jigaboos.” On a nationwide radio network, he calls on “the blacks”, wherever they are, to come back. He shows them the cloths with which they wash cars and the brushes with which they shine shoes as sentimental reminders of the goodies that await them. Eventually, the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they vanished, and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. What will happen next is left unsaid, but the suggestion is strong that things will never quite be the same again.

Although originally based on circumstances during the civil rights era Director, NATHAN A. LILLY believes that “recent events in society create an ironic relevancy for this play today. Whether it is the controversy over immigration from particular countries or the presidential policy on illegal entry at the U.S.-Mexico border, consider what if People of Color were not a part of society. More universally, what If those we look down on disappeared overnight. How would we go on? Finally, let’s imagine another more extreme form of absence. What if, we completely erase people from our history? What would be the impact? Generally speaking, an important fiber to the tapestry of the world would be sorely missed. Our production of this play encourages the audience to explore the satire more deeply.” As a reviewer for IndieWire notes, the idea put forth by Douglas Turner Ward “is bold, inciting, and intriguing, piling the audience’s plate high with food for thought”.

Adding texture to the plot, the play is performed as a “reverse minstrel show” where black actors in whiteface portray the bigoted citizens. Audiences get to view whiteness portrayed as nothing more than a performance with an undercurrent of comical, irony in social and political satire that can be enlightening.

The minstrel show was an American form of entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Minstrelsy relied upon a perceived, shallow depiction of African American culture, to become the first theatrical form that was distinctly American. The first “authentic” innovation in theatre since coming to the American continent was minstrelsy, which consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that mocked and demeaned people specifically of African descent. Reversing the minstrel is not easy, and attempts to do so run the risk of reincarnating the minstrel in more subtle and therefore more effective forms. Ward’s satire set the tone for much of the reverse minstrelsy that followed, including Melvin Van Peebles’s 1970 film Watermelon Man, a psychedelic romp in which Godfrey Cambridge plays a white insurance salesman who wakes up to discover that he has become a black man; Whoopi Goldberg’s 1996 The Associate, in which she impersonates a fictional white-male boss in order to get ahead; and Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2001 play Topdog/Underdog, in which an African-American character has a job impersonating Abe Lincoln in whiteface. Black and white writers have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to reverse, satirize, and/or parody minstrelsy, and to clear out a space in American theater tradition for more complex representations of racial identity. A partial list of such plays includes Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, Amiri Baraka’s Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show, Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, Ntozake Shange’s Spell #7, and George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum.


An actor, director, and playwright, DOUGLAS TURNER WARD is considered a living legend in the world of African American theatre. Although he has achieved much during his lifetime, his co-founding and leadership of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) in 1968, ranks as his greatest achievement. Douglas Turner Ward was born in Burnside, Louisiana, on May 5, 1930. He was raised in New Orleans. He attended Wilberforce University in 1946 and then transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He finally decided to leave college altogether, and moved to New York City in 1949 where he continued his studies at the Paul Mann Workshop while employed as a journalist. He began his off-Broadway career in 1956 as an actor in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and in 1959 went on to be cast in a minor role in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. Ward, Robert Hooks, and Gerald Krone formed the Negro Ensemble Company in 1965. Ward made his playwriting debut that same year with two one acts, Happy Ending and A Day of Absence. In 1967, the Negro Ensemble Company officially opened with Ward serving as artistic director, where he continued to act, direct and write plays. Ward wrote The River Niger, which became the company’s first play to go to Broadway. The River Niger eventually won a Tony Award for Best Play. Ward also wrote other plays, including The Reckoning and Brotherhood. Ward has been recognized as the “father of the modern black theater.” An outspoken man, he began talking about the lack of opportunity for black actors and black theatre. This led to an invitation from the New York Times to write an op-ed piece on the state of black theatre. In his New York Times editorial, entitled “American Theatre: For Whites Only?”, Ward wrote “If any hope outside of chance individual fortune exists for Negro playwrights as a group, or for that matter, Negro actors or other theatre craftsman, the most immediate, pressing, practical, absolutely minimally essential active first step is the development of a permanent Negro company of at least Off-Broadway size and dimension. Not in the future…but now!” The focus was on the need for a permanent black theater in America that would not be a segregated or separatist theater but a home-base for black artists. The theater, he added, would concentrate on black themes but would include and interpret good drama wherever it originated.”

SUMMARY: A one-act satire about an imaginary Southern town where all the black people have suddenly disappeared. The only ones left are sick and lying in hospital beds, refusing to get well. The Mayor sends a national plea for the blacks, “wherever they are,” to come back. In the end, the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they had vanished, and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. A Reimagined Classic. Part of Karamu House’s 2018-2019 Social Justice Series.

Tickets and more information about ‘Day og Absence’ available here.


NATHAN A. LILLY is the Director of Marketing and Line Producer at Karamu House, and has worked in professional theatre as an arts administrator, director, producer and educator for over 20 years. He has worked artistically with The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts TYA/USA, Hollywood Fringe Festival, Cleveland Play House, Cleveland Public Theatre, Great Lakes Theater, Dobama Theatre, Beck Center for the Arts, Ensemble Theatre, Porthouse Theatre, Cain Park, The Maltz Museum, The Musical Theater Project, Case Western Reserve University, and Kent State University. Nathan most recently directed the critically-acclaimed Cleveland Public Theatre play Ya Mama!, written and performed by Nina Domingue. Karamu credits: director of the critically-acclaimed production of Passing Strange, the regional premiere of From My Hometown, as well as Flyin’ West and Yellowman, both in collaboration with NYC’s Project1Voice; Line Producer for the regional premieres of Rajiv Joseph’s The Lake Effect, Sassy Mamas, and Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone; the American premiere of The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God, and the World premiere of Believe in Cleveland; Associate Director for the regional premiere of Caroline or Change. Nathan is a member of Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and sits on the Board of Directors for Talespinner Children’s Theatre, where he co-directed Sundiata: Child of Lion and Buffalo written by Nina Domingue.

The design team includes scenic designer Prophet D. Seay, lighting designer Colleen Albrecht, costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib, and sound designer Jeremy Dobbins. The cast is led by Robert Hunter (Karamu’s Leap of Faith, Dobama’s Superior Donuts) as The Mayor of the small rural Southern town, Jailyn Harris (Karamu’s Sister Act) as Jackson the Assistant, and Sherrie Tolliver as the TV Announcer. The balance of the cast includes: Lachaka Askew, Jeannine Gaskin, Maya Jones, Austin Sasser, Prophet D. Seay, and Nate Summers.


Robert Hunter – The Mayor

Jailyn Sherrell Harris – Jackson, Mayor’s Assistant

Sherrie Tolliver – TV Announcer

Lachaka A. Askew

Jeannine Gaskin

Maya T. Jones

Austin Blake Sasser

Prophet D. Seay

Nate Summers


Director: Nathan A. Lilly

Stage Manager + Props Manager: Mia Jones

Scenic Design + Technical Director: Prophet Seay

Lighting Design: Colleen Albrecht

Costume Design: Inda Blatch-Geib

Sound Design: Jeremy Dobbins

Wardrobe Coordinator: Brielle McGrew

Executive Producer: Tony F. Sias

RUNNING TIME: The play runs approx. 75 minutes with no intermission. Post-performance

dialogues are scheduled for various nights.

TICKET INFO: Tickets range from $25–$40. Please call 216-795-7077 or visit


In 1915, Oberlin College graduates Russell and Rowena Jelliffe opened the Playhouse Settlement in an area called Cleveland’s The Roaring Third. The Jelliffes wanted to build an environment where people of different races, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds could come together to share common ventures through the arts. Karamu was established as a gathering place for racially-diverse members of the surrounding community at that time. Today, Karamu is a beating heart for the entire community, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification, or age, retaining its historical identity as “a place of joyful gathering.” Core programs include socially-relevant and professional quality theatre; arts education programming for all ages; and community programming, such as comedy, live jazz, and spoken word performances, that invites participation and engagement, reflection, and a re-commitment to cultural values.

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