The Next 100 Years Await a Newly Invigorated Karamu House

Architectural rendering of new Jelliffe Theater.
Architectural rendering of new Jelliffe Theater.

Tony Sias has only been at the helm of Karamu House for two years, but he's making big changes in how this venerable 102-year-old institution looks and feels. As he says, "We really want to make Karamu House a vital part of our neighborhood in Fairfax, as well as in the larger greater Cleveland community."

And he has the mandate to do just that. As the president and chief executive officer of Karamu, Sias hold the reins of an organization with a storied history in theater. Many top-flight performers on national and international stages, not to mention Hollywood, were trained and gained their first acting exposure at Karamu. That list of luminaries includes Langston Hughes, Rube Dee, Ryan O'Neal, Robert Guillaume and James Pickens Jr.

Sias left his post as director of arts education for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) to assume the role of leadership at Karamu in September 2015, and he's been running full tilt since then. The large Karamu facility at 2355 East 89th Street is being renovated, including an entirely new main stage space named after Karamu's founders, Rowena and Russell Jelliffe.

It will feature a fully renovated Jelliffe and Arena theaters and lobbies, and new entrances which will be ADA compliant. The new main theater is our "wow factor," explains Sias, "and we think our patrons will be thrilled with the finished product." Other physical renovations throughout the facility will improve the experience for all visitors.

But the changes Sias is implementing at Karamu go far beyond physical renovations. As he notes, "We want to invite people to come back to Karamu for a variety of reasons. Of course, theater is at the heart of what we do, and we want Karamu to become a training ground for students of all ages, preparing them for college and the theater industry as a whole.

"We plan to achieve that goal by establishing professional standards and showing our artists how to meet those standards. In that way, they will be prepared to take the next steps in their careers." But Sias isn't forgetting kids and novice actors, who will also be welcome to participate in Karamu's shows, workshops and other activities.

Arts education is also a major priority for Sias, and he intends that Karamu will support local school districts with arts education programming and services. "From my time at CMSD, I discovered a lot of ways to help young people grow and develop new skills, in and through arts education. And that includes skills such as being punctual, working collaboratively and behaving in a professional manner, which can pay off no matter which direction your career goes."

As Sias says, educational efforts also extend to their audiences: "We want to select challenging plays that are accessible, relevant and current. It's good to expose our patrons to new and groundbreaking work that challenges preconceptions. This includes color-conscious casting. We are very invested in working to reimagine classical American theater."

The third major "product line" that Sias is interested in pursuing for Karamu is community involvement. "We are aggressively re-engaging with our community," says Sias, "and that covers a lot of territory." In the past year, Karamu has sponsored a jazz series, a comedy series and a poetry series — all of which have brought new people into the Karamu fold. "We even had a couple memorial services here for neighborhood families. We are reaching out in all kinds of new ways."

As for the future, Sias wants Karamu to become the anchor of a new Arts, Cultural and Education (ACE) district in the Fairfax neighborhood, which extends from Woodland to Carnegie and from East 105th Street to East 72nd Street. Sias says, " We'd look forward to working with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the Cleveland Clinic, Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, Opportunity Corridor and other partners in developing the ACE district ... . We're perfectly positioned, geographically and otherwise, to help develop the arts and culture in this area, and we're eager to do it!"

Also on the to-do list for the future is making better use of Karamu's archives, and turning those old photos, programs and other artifacts into exhibitions for people to visit.

In short, Karamu appears to be well on its way to make a significant mark in this community for the next 100 years.

One person who was recently a part of Karamu's history is still in town, doing some spectacular work. Terrence Spivey, the artistic director of Karamu from 2003 to 2016, directed a number of extraordinary productions on their stages during that time.

And since he left, he's been very busy directing shows with various entities including John Carroll University, Ensemble Theatre, Convergence-Continuum Theatre, and Playwrights Local. And it all happened in an odd manner.

As Spivey says, "When I left Karamu, I wasn't sure if I wanted to take a job in another city. So I just decided to sit still for a while and see where the universe wanted to take me."

Pretty soon, the universe rang Spivey's phone and he's been busy since, directing powerful productions such as Objectively Reasonable that dealt with the killing of Tamir Rice. He is also working with Tamir's mother, Samaria Rice, to create an outreach effort in Tamir's name. In his spare time, Spivey is involved in supervising a teen theater series at the Shore Cultural Center in Euclid and scheduling a series of readings of August Wilson plays.

"I'm getting used to improvising my career," says, Spivey. "And I'm finding it to be very fulfilling as an artist, now that I can respond to a range of new opportunities."

Karamu House, 2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7070,

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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