Playwright Cornell Calhoun III Brings Art Form to the Campus District and Central
Photos from The Mighty Scarabs, by Albert Bell, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Cornell Calhoun III, a resident of the Tower Press building in the Superior Arts District, is bringing his playwriting skills to area in full force. His most recent work, The Mighty Scarabs, has been recognized by cleveland.com as one of the top 10 plays of the 2015 Theater Season, by Scene Magazine as the best play by a local playwright, and has been selected by the Cleveland Critics Circle Awards 2015. The Mighty Scarabs was also just recently selected for publication by Original Works Publishing. Learn more about Cornell and his work, including the art he’s bringing to the Central neighborhood and Cleveland.
Cornell Calhoun grew up at East 43rd and Cedar, in four-suite apartment near the local corner store, a central point in the community. He attended Central Junior High School and East Tech High School, where he played basketball on their legendary team. His experiences playing basketball at East Tech have become a major influence on his life and career, as Cornell says, “if I didn’t play basketball, I didn’t go to college.” Cornell grew up watching the East Tech basketball team, which everyone aspired to play for at the time, and surprised his own family when he made the team. Because of this success in high school basketball, Mr. Calhoun was offered a spot on the team at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. It was here where he was first exposed to acting and playwriting.
While Cornell grew up writing poetry and stories, he had never been involved in theatre. As part of a Humanities class, Cornell was required to attend a play, in which, as a basketball player, he had minimal interest. He ended up being so moved by the play he attended, that he was brought to tears. At this point, Cornell vowed that “next time they do a play, I’m going to be up on stage, and the audience is going to be crying.” He told the play’s director that he wanted to start acting, auditioned for the next production in the spring, and got his first role.
From here, Cornell began performing in every college production, and was even challenged to write his own play during his senior year. The play he authored, entitled The Chocolate Garden, was about a black family moving to a white neighborhood paralleled with the life and death of a garden. Cornell was recognized nationally work his work, recognition that has continued to this day.
Cornell began his career in Cleveland with Cleveland State University, under the direction of Reuben and Dorothy Silver, renowned performers, directors, administrators, teachers and mentors in the Cleveland theater scene. Today, Cornell is the Arts and Culture Coordinator for the City of Cleveland. He is tasked with bringing art into the city and into City Hall, most recently with his annual City Hall Christmas play, Journey to the New Star, where professional actors worked on the production with Cleveland youth. He also performs at Karamu House on East 82nd, the oldest African American theatre in the United States, and is in the playwriting unit at the Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights. Cornell has come full circle, with most of the plays he is involved with taking place in and around the Central neighborhood where he grew up.
His most recent production, The Mighty Scarabs, centers around the glory days of East Tech basketball that Calhoun was part of. In the play, the East Tech “Mighty Scarabs” had previously won the state basketball championship. Set 13 years later, the stars of the team are still living in the Central neighborhood, some working mundane jobs and others immersed in gambling and drugs. The team members whose futures seemed so bright during and after their time on the championship team, seemingly peaked too soon and never go on to great success. While still reminiscing on their past success, the team members are struggling with how to grasp a future that does not include a basketball career.
Mr. Calhoun has resided in the Tower Press Building for the past five years. He enjoys the vibrancy of downtown living combined with the accessibility of the Campus District, and calls Tower Press one of the best buildings in the area for artists to live and work. Being in the Superior Arts District has also created connections with other neighborhood artists, which Cornell has been able to utilize for his work.