Thriving in Fairfax: How Karamu House got its groove back

At Karamu House, necessity has been the mother of reinvention. Several years ago, the renowned 103-year-old performing arts institute was struggling to sustain itself in the face of funding and administrative challenges, as well as rising poverty and other issues facing the surrounding community.

But thanks to a laser-focused strategic plan and the vision of CEO and president Tony Sias (who came aboard in October 2015), Karamu House is starting off the next 100 years on the right note—branding its rebirth as “Karamu 2.0.”

The theatre’s current production of “Sassy Mamas” was fully sold out before opening night, and the organization recently collaborated with the Cleveland Orchestra for a series of Black History Month performances. Renovations are also underway to completely redo the facility, from the lobby to its theatres to its administrative wing.

“We’re re-energizing Karamu House to take its proper place not only on the Cleveland theatrical stage, but also nationally,” says development director Joy Roller.

The effort appears to be working: last year, the Plain Dealer named Karamu House one of Cleveland’s four “greatest cultural treasures,” and the documentary “Karamu: 100 Years in the House” debuted earlier this month on PBS. On Tuesday, Karamu House also announced that it is the recipient of a $200,000 grant from KeyBank—helping pave the way for more arts education programs and ensure that future generations will have access to the country’s oldest African-American performing arts institute.

Revisiting—and rebuilding—Karamu’s roots

With a name that means “joyful gathering place” in Swahili, Karamu House was founded in 1915 by social workers Russell and Rowena Jeliffe. Initially called the Playhouse Settlement, the facility was based on Cleveland’s lower east side in a section then known as “The Roaring Third.”

The Jeliffes’ vision was to create a welcoming place where people of diverse backgrounds could find common ground through the arts, and they began producing plays with interracial casts in 1917. In 1927, they acquired an adjacent theater and named it “Karamu”—later adopting the name for the entire organization in 1941. Though that theater later burned down in a fire, it was rebuilt at the corner of E. 89th and Quincy (Karamu’s current location) as a two-theater complex in 1949 with support from Leonard Hanna and the Rockefeller Foundation.

As the surrounding area became primarily African-American (with many people relocating from the South in the 1920s), the programming was gradually geared toward that demographic. All types of artists—from dancers to printmakers to actors to writers—found creative community there.

Over time, artists like Langston Hughes, Marjorie Witt Johnson, James Pickens, Jr., Ruby Dee, Robert Guillaume, Ron O’Neal, and Bill Cobbs were among the notables who refined their craft at Karamu House. Eleanor Roosevelt singled out the theatre for its excellence in 1940, and Life magazine hailed Karamu House as “a milestone in the progress of U.S. race relations” in 1951—just a few in a long list of accolades and accomplishments.

As Karamu House approached its 100th anniversary in 2015, its rich history was a point of great pride, but its future wasn’t as clear-cut. High turnover at the executive level and a bevy of other issues had necessitated the development of a strategic plan, which took a year and a half to complete and was approved in January 2016. During that time, Karamu House also undertook a search for new leadership, with Tony Sias signing on as President and CEO in October 2015.

“I had served on the strategic planning committee as a community stakeholder, and when the board decided to do a search for permanent leadership, I decided to throw my hat in the ring,” says Sias, who previously served as director of arts education for Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “I had a passion for the institution, and I wanted to make a difference in moving it forward for the next 100 years.”

The early stages weren’t easy. Sias implemented a large-scale downsizing effort, cutting 15 staffers along with a once-thriving early childhood education program. (“We were dealing with very low numbers—we had the capacity to serve 150 students, and we were serving about 16 when I arrived,” explains Sias.) In addition, Karamu House lost its non-profit status in May 2016 due to several years of delinquent tax returns, but worked to quickly regain it by July so as not to lose pivotal grant funding.

Sias was also tasked with activating the strategic plan’s four main pillars: programming, capacity building, capital improvements, and financial stability.

“Our strategic plan has really served as a road map and helped us take a panoramic view [of the organization],” says Sias. “We had to look at our finances to create a sustainable model, elevate the quality of theatre we were presenting and producing, and go beyond arts activities to have mastery-level arts education programming. Those were the areas we knew we needed to focus in on.”

Vision meets realization

If the last two seasons are any indication, Sias and his team are well on their way to realizing their plan. Season subscriptions increased by 236 percent in 2016, and the 2017-2018 season has also marked a number of high points. Along with the recent sold-out run of “Sassy Mamas,” the upcoming “Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search For God” marks the American premiere of the stage adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s short story. This season’s opener, “Simply Simone,” also resonated with Cleveland audiences, with Sias calling it a “box office success.”

“People came to see it several times, and our audiences were as diverse as Cuyahoga County,” says Sias. “For many people, it was like a formal reintroduction of Karamu House and what we are aspiring to actualize through this vision of ‘2.0.’”

Karamu House has also broadened its artistic scope of late—adding comedy revues, a quarterly jazz series, and poetry events into the mix. Last August, the organization partnered with Twelve Literary and Performative Arts to present “Merge at Karamu,” a joint effort to translate poetry to the stage.

Along with expansion in the performing arts, Sias hopes to introduce visual arts “in the near future,” including photography and ceramics. Says Sias, “We have a pottery studio here at Karamu that has been dormant for a number of years, and we want to breathe life into it once again."

The recent announcement of the $200,000 KeyBank grant will better enable Karamu House to fulfill the arts education piece of the plan. One area of focus will be adding more programming centered on facilitating social and emotional learning. “We want to help strengthen young people as they develop, and the KeyBank grant will allow us to engage highly qualified teaching artists and get the necessary supplies and equipment to do that,” says Sias.

A sense of place

A significant part of reclaiming Karamu House’s former glory has been refreshing its physical space. Currently, the Jeliffe Theatre is under total renovation, slated to open in June with all-new mezzanine seating, lighting, sound system, and curtains. After its completion, the renovations will continue in the facility’s Arena Theatre, lobby spaces, and eventually, the administrative wing.

Along with revamping the viewing experience, Sias hopes to brand Karamu House as a community gathering place. “We really have a vision of bringing our building to life as a destination,” says Sias. “[Our goals include] getting signage on Quincy, adding a patio area, and potentially expanding the lobby into a place to get a morning coffee, snack, or cocktail before a show. It’s all part of our long-range vision.”

That vision coincides with the big-picture goal of the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation to develop an Arts, Culture, and Education (ACE) District along Quincy Avenue. Along with Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the Cleveland Clinic, Karamu House has been named as a key partner in this effort.

“We’re eager to be central to the revitalization of this culturally rich community,” says Sias. Adds Roller, “We’re the cultural anchor of Fairfax, and we’re all working together, all growing in the same direction.”

Other plans include working with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Western Reserve Historical Society to create a new public space showcasing Karamu’s history—in tandem with an effort to digitize 102 years worth of photos and artifacts. “You wouldn’t believe the photos, paintings, playbills, scripts, and other memorabilia,” says Roller. “We’re working to preserve them for future educational purposes and display.”

In June, Karamu House will host a grand opening event in conjunction with the newly renovated Jeliffe Theatre—with numerous boldface alumni expected to attend. While there is still much to be done in reimagining Karamu House, Roller believes the sky is the limit under Sias’ direction.

Says Roller, “Karamu is experiencing the most massive turnaround in its history, led by Tony Sias with a rejuvenated board in place and a staff that has the capacity to absolutely make this place an arts and historic destination in Cleveland.”  

Watch a trailer for "Karamu: 100 Years in the House:"

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.