A Holiday Weekend in Cleveland Begins with Langston Hughes' Jubilant 'Black Nativity'

For generations of Clevelanders, the holidays start with Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity—an inspiring musical with roots right here, at the country’s oldest Black theater.

Black actors performing Black Nativity scene in Cleveland
Photo: Kayla Lupean for Destination Cleveland

As the curtain falls on Black Nativity at the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square, a knee-slapping, toe-tapping rendition of "Joy to the World" still dances in my ears. The show left me inspired—by the costumes, the rafter-raising voices, the hopeful energy, and the threads drawn forward and back between Africa, the Americas, old worlds, new worlds, future worlds.

The musical is staged by Karamu House, a Black theater founded in Cleveland in 1915 and considered the oldest in the United States. There are dozens of others across the country, including Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul and Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago, but Karamu has a unique history. Cleveland was a hub of the Harlem Renaissance; for many years, poet and playwright Langston Hughes (who once lived in the city) visited regularly, workshopping scripts at Karamu House. In fact, it was the theater's founders, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, who commissioned Black Nativity, inviting Hughes to tell the familiar Christmas story from a Black perspective. Since first opening off Broadway in 1961, the show has become a staple in many cities, says Karamu's president, Tony F. Sias, who is directing the theater's version for the fourth time.

"People have told me they've seen every production Karamu has done. Generations and generations," he says. "It resonates with not just the Black community, but the community as a whole. Yesterday, a Latino colleague told me, 'My children are in their mid-40s, and they still talk about their experience of Black Nativity. Now we have to get our grandchildren there.' It excites me to hear that and know the tradition lives on."

Street at night in Cleveland with lights
Playhouse Square. Cody York for Destination Cleveland

Recently, Black Nativity has been staged at Karamu House's home in the Fairfax neighborhood, but in 2022, the production moved to Playhouse Square downtown (and will be there again this year). Clevelanders love to tout that Playhouse Square is the largest performing arts center outside New York City, and for Sias, Black Nativity returning there after a decades-long hiatus feels right: "There are so many holiday shows in Playhouse Square, including The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. Karamu producing Black Nativity here, as part of the downtown experience, really balances out arts and culture in our city."

Terminal Tower in Cleveland with holiday lights
Terminal Tower. Aerial Agents for Destination Cleveland

Emerging from the theater, I'm enveloped in icy whites and neon brights. A chandelier arches over the streets of Playhouse Square, and the Terminal Tower glows red and green. People stream below the marquees, dressed for dinners, drinks, shows. I stroll through the Festival of Trees, a fundraiser typically held in the area, before plunging into Miracle on East 4th, a pop-up bar decked in twinkle lights and peppermint stripes.

It's all massively festive, but next time maybe I'll slip away to Becky's, a bar and grill around since the '80s. Sias mentioned that it's a favorite late-night hangout for the theater crowd and Cleveland State students. Cheap and cheerful, he says—and really, that's all you need to feed the holiday spirit, especially after a great show.

Performers at Black Nativity in Cleveland
Black Nativity evolves each year as directors reinterpret the work with new costumes and orchestration. Kayla Lupean for Destination Cleveland

What to Do

Karamu House's Black Nativity runs December 1–16, 2023, at the Allen Theatre. Tony F. Sias says that this show is often the hook that lures people to other Karamu productions—so mark your calendar now for The Breakfast at the Bookstore, opening on Karamu's home stage in late January.

Black woman holding a record at her record store in Cleveland
DJ and producer Brittany “Red-I” Benton specializes in reggae, hip-hop, soul and jazz at her record shop in City Goods, a cluster of “creative hangars” in Hingetown. Matt Shiffler for Destination Cleveland

Pair a theater night with a shopping day near downtown. In the Ohio City neighborhood, Hingetown is an enclave of nifty stores and good eats, including a cool complex called City Goods, where creative entrepreneurs sell soap, backpacks, pottery and more. Or time your trip with the Cleveland Bazaar (December 9–10, 2023), held at 78th Street Studios in the Gordon Square Arts District. It's the city's longest-running holiday market, featuring 100-plus makers. The range and quality of their work is impressive—fine art and furniture, candles, and cocktail mixers.

aerial shot of holiday lights and a skating rink at Public Square in Cleveland
Aerial Agents for Destination Cleveland

In Public Square, Winterland kicks off with a family festival and lighting ceremony the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The skating rink and lights stay up all season.

Women at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Cleveland
Ryan Donnell

First-timers to Cleveland shouldn't miss the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or The Cleveland Museum of Art. (The gallery of shining armor is a stunner.) At the Cleveland Botanical Garden, you'll find decorated trees, gingerbread houses and festive flair indoors and out.

Interior of restaurant with teal walls and plush chairs
Jaja. Marina Pia Goldi

Where to Eat and Drink

For a drink before or after a Playhouse Square show, Miracle on East 4th Street in Society Lounge is a kitschy blast. Tip back a spiced Christmapolitan, then cross East 4th to Cordelia for inventive, shareable comfort food or to Mabel's BBQ fora feast of smoked meats. A few blocks away, Masthead Brewing Company dishes Neapolitan-style pizza. Farther afield but still downtown, Acqua di Luca serves all you want on a bitter winter night—cozy brick walls, jazzy vibes, and Italian wine and seafood.

Thick sandwich at Cordelia restaurant Cleveland
With a menu heavy on seasonal veggies, Cordelia is a great spot for a meal before or after a play downtown. Dylan Palchesko

Across the Cuyahoga River in Ohio City, busy West Side Market is a 111-year-old institution for prepared foods, cheeses, vegetables and pastries. The attached West Side Market Cafe serves a solid diner-style breakfast, or for something more lavish, check out JAJA, an Argentinian steakhouse. For early planners, one of the hottest meal tickets in town is Great Lakes Brewing Company's Holiday Brewmaster's Dinner, a five-course menu paired with select beers. (Alternatively, don your gaudiest sweater and stop by Great Lakes' Secret Cellar Christmas Bar for a pint of malty Christmas Ale.)

In Hingetown, get a coffee fix at Rising Star or head to Amba for inventive Indian-inspired fare. In an old firehouse, Larder is a contemporary take on an old-world Jewish delicatessen, recognized multiple times by the James Beard Foundation.

Where to Stay

Several hotels put you a short walk from Playhouse Square and East 4th Street's restaurants and bars. At the stylish Kimpton Schofield Hotel, in a 1902 office building, every room has a yoga mat. (You can ask for a plant or acoustic guitar too.) The Hyatt Regency Cleveland at The Arcade anchors a vast and elegantly preserved 1890 Victorian-style shopping structure. It's a stunning space in any season, but especially magical strung in white holiday lights.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles