Life of Dance Pioneer Brought to Stage

Living dance legend Marjorie Witt Johnson ’35 was the inspiration for the dance-theater piece Daughter of a Buffalo Soldier, which enjoyed a three-week run in May by the Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre at Cleveland’s historic Karamu House.

Now a sharp and stately 95 years old, Johnson grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., the eldest of four children. At the suggestion of a high school teacher, she applied to Oberlin and discovered modern dance. It offered a rush, she says, that gave her a sense of self-worth and sparked her life’s work, which included instilling an appreciation of African American culture in young dancers.

After graduating, she joined Oberlin graduates Russell and Rowena Woodham-Jelliffee ’14, founders of Karamu House, in introducing modern dance to “city kids with an attitude.” Known as the Karamu Dancers, the Cleveland company honed its skills under Johnson’s tutelage, eventually making its way to the 1940 World’s Fair in New York.

Later, with a degree in social work from Western Reserve University, Johnson worked as a social-service group worker and arts educator in Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. In 1978, she returned to Cleveland and continued to share her love of dance with black youth.


Actor Bill Irwin ’73 took home his first Tony Award in June—Best Actor in a Play—for his portrayal of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Boston Globe called Irwin’s performance “a brilliantly ironic makeover of a role that had seemed to belong to Richard Burton,” and referred to his victory as “the one upset of the night.” Irwin co-stars with Kathleen Turner in the Edward Albee revival of Woolf, which opened March 20 at the Longacre Theatre.

Next Page >>