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'Breakfast at the Bookstore' explores Cleveland history, Black activism and UFOs

Space men, Cleveland and a young woman’s journey with life, love and Black activism all collide in “The Breakfast at the Bookstore,” written by Cleveland playwright Lisa Langford and set in an East Side Cleveland neighborhood.

“The main character's fondest dream is to have a Black Panther-like breakfast at this Black bookstore in Glenville in the early 1970s,” said Langford.

She drew inspiration for the play from the history podcast BackStory. There was an episode about UFOs in U.S. history where Louisiana State University professor Dr. Stephen C. Finley talked about the differences between how whites and Blacks tend to describe close encounters.

The differences discussed were that whites tend to report “a more frightening experience. It's more like being colonized or exploited,” Langford said. “But when Black people have this experience, it's more revelatory and spiritual and hopeful.”

Two actors stand on stage at Karamu House
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Dot, played by Mariah Burks, and Sharpe, played by Prophet Seay, don’t see eye to eye about Dot’s dream of hosting a freedom breakfast at a Glenville bookstore in the play by Lisa Langford.

The play also weaves in local history, set just a few years after the historic Glenville shooting between police and Black nationalists. The book “Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland” by James Robenalt was a helpful resource for Langford in writing the play.

“In 1968, there's all kinds of riots and unrest and assassinations. And by the time you get to 1973, you're feeling like, ‘Oh, we got past that. Everything's smooth sailing.’ But in hindsight, we all know that they were about to experience Watergate and all kinds of chaos,” she said, adding that the play is centered on what it is like to be in a “pocket of peace when you've just come from chaos and chaos is ahead of you.”

In staging the play’s premiere at Karamu House, director Nina Domingue said she enjoyed the luxury of having access to the playwright.

“‘The Breakfast at the Bookstore'” is… a love letter to young people in the movement,” Domingue said. “It's examining through the character of Dot how young people find their purpose and how they tend to do it differently from the generation before them.”

Domingue is also self-admittedly a sci-fi nerd, and she leaned into that with the play.

“I'm a big Trekkie,” she said. “Star Trek is one of the first sci-fi programs that had Black people in the future.”

The production also spotlights a women-led creative team. In addition to Langford and Domingue, Suwatana “Pla” Rockland designed the costumes and Laura Carlson-Tarantowski designed the sets.

Two actors sit on stage in car seats
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
"The Breakfast at the Bookstore" is set in Cleveland a few years after the historic Glenville shooting between police and Black nationalists. Carolyn Demanelis, left, plays Fran, and Mariah Burks, right, plays Dot.

“Quite often we think about diversity, equity, inclusion centered on race, but gender and other forms of diversity and inclusion are really important to me and Karamu House,” said Tony Sias, president and CEO of Karamu House.

The main character, Dot, played by Mariah Burks, is full of life and open to new ways of thinking.

“She is unapologetic about who she is and what she believes and what she hopes for. And I want people to walk away with that,” Domingue said.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.
Jean-Marie Papoi is a digital producer for the arts & culture team at Ideastream Public Media.