Karamu House to complete renovations, add community spaces, and return to live theater

Karamu House will return to live, in-person theater when it begins its season this October, and guests will see some remarkable changes to the theater complex when they visit.

As a pillar of arts and equality in Cleveland since 1915, the oldest, producing African American theater in the country is about to complete the third and final phase of its renovations at 2355 E. 89th St. in the Fairfax neighborhood, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

“We are really excited about this,” says Karamu House president and CEO Tony F. Sias. “With this relationship that Karamu and Bank of America have had over the last several years, Jeneen Marziani, the president of Bank of America Ohio, has really been very instrumental in helping lay the foundation of this ongoing relationship.”

With the Bank of America grant, the third phase of renovations includes work on the newly named Bank of America Arena Theatre, a new outdoor stage, and a full-service Smucker’s Q89 Bistro with patio. ADA enhancements throughout the facility will be made, as well as a renovated streetscape.

The grant will allow Karamu House to strengthen its mission of producing professional theater, providing arts education, and presenting community programs that honor the African American experience, while also expanding its technical theater training and workforce development.

This last $3.5 million phase was supposed to be completed by January, but the capital campaign was put on hold because of COVID-19—also forcing the theater to cancel most of its educational and community programs and shift to virtual performances in 2020 and part of 2021.

After a year of shutdowns and permanent closures across the country due to the coronavirus, and a raised awareness of racism throughout the country, Sias says Bank of America has stood by Karamu House.

“Over the last year, as the country has addressed issues of dual pandemic—with COVID-19 and the issues of systemic racism as an issue that has been brought once again to the forefront—a lot of institutions made grandiose statements about their commitment,” he says. “And Bank of America has stood strong in not only making a statement but backing it up and investing in institutions like Karamu with such a sizable investment.”

Sias says the plans call for taking an existing patio and creating an easy way for guests to get from the north side of the theater to the south side—as well as create an outdoor stage off of the parking lot. On one side sits the Cleveland Foundation Jelliffe Theatre, while the other side has the Arena Theatre.

“There's not public access to the north and south sides of the building unless you go down the back hallway, which is the dressing rooms,” Sias explains. “So, by closing what is currently a patio, it will allow indoor public accessibility from the north and south side of the building, but that will also double as an outdoor stage. there'll be a huge garage door that will open and that will be able to have concerts in the parking lot because this stage is right off of our parking lot.”

The Smucker’s Q89 Bistro and patio will be full-service for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, says Sias—a first for Karamu. He says coffee, tea, and pastries will be offered in the mornings; salads and sandwiches for lunch; and dinner will consist of quick and easy small plates to get patrons in and out for the show.   

The Arena black box theater has traditionally served as space for full-scale productions, says Sias, but once renovated will serve as a flex space to teach lifelong learners and young people the technical and design aspects of theater production, as well host full-scale productions. He says he wants to “reimagine” how they use that space to broaden their reach in the community.

Additionally, Sias says he sees the Arena Theatre as a space to attract more people of color to the technical side of theater and strengthen Karamu’s relationships with other area theaters.

“People who are interested in the technical aspects of theater—whether it's the lighting design or sound design—we want people to be able to come and learn some of those skills here,” he explains. “We want more black and brown people to be involved in technical theater and there needs to be more designers of color.  Karamu will work in partnership with other theaters in town to really talk about how we further diversify the pool of technical theater artists in our community.”

Additionally, Sias says Karamu plans to focus on working with 18- to 24-year-olds to incorporate leadership development and other skills training to advance workforce development in the Fairfax neighborhood.

Karamu will also partner with Bank of America to provide financial education, coaching, benefits counseling, and tax assistance to the community.

The renovations began in 2017. Work so far has included renovating the historic Jelliffe Theatre, art gallery, gift shop, theatre lounge, box office, and main lobby.

Construction on phase three is scheduled to begin by October and be completed by late summer 2022.

Karamu House will have an in-person performance on Thursday, July 29 with a free Happy Hour Suite, Horns and Things. The concert is open to those 18 and older, but registration for tickets is requred.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.