Tucked away in the Fairfax neighborhood just east of Downtown Cleveland and near the Cleveland Clinic is one of Cleveland’s historic cultural institutions, Karamu House and Theatre. It’s known as the oldest Black theatre company in the U.S. and has been an incubator for some of the country's most well-known Black artists since its opening in 1917. Perhaps most notably, playwright and poet Langston Hughes saw a number of his plays debut here.
100+ years strong
Karamu means “joyful, gathering place” in Swahili.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that Karamu House’s President and CEO Tony Sias invites theatre lovers from across Northeast Ohio to gather at one of Cleveland’s oldest institutions: “Come to the heart of the city of Cleveland, to the oldest African American theatre in the country, for a premier theatre experience.”
The 100+ year-old Karamu House is rooted in heritage, but its second act — Karamu 2.0 — has started another exciting chapter in the theatre's history.
“Our vision was to regain our place on the national and international stage and become a premiere arts and historic destination,” says Sias. With a background that includes an MFA in acting from Ohio University, an acting residency at the Cleveland Playhouse, and a stint as Director of Arts Education for the Cleveland Municipal School District, Karamu’s CEO embodies decades of experience in acting, directing, writing, teaching, administration and as a community stakeholder.
Since 2015, Sias has navigated the largest turnaround in Karamu’s history. Audiences have grown from 7,200 to more than 12,000. Karamu’s 195-seat Jelliffe Theatre, its largest stage, went through a renovation. In 2018, the theatre also received a $2 million grant to boost its role in the Fairfax community as a cultural, social and educational anchor.
Aseelah Shareef, Vice President and COO, explained the important changes in staffing that have aided in this transformation. “Staff must bring both artistic competencies and administrative skills to the job. That way, we all see things from two sides,” says Shareef, who is also trained in dance. “Art relies on constant communication to get to the best product.”
Shareef maintains operational efficiency across Karamu’s three product lines: theatre, community programming and arts education. She also curates culturally and socially relevant arts education for the neighborhood.
Karamu has a breadth of community programming, including music, lectures and workshops. And with his deep knowledge of arts education, Sias has developed the mastery model for its arts education, which is central to Karamu’s mission.
“We offer a sequential, mastery-level arts education program, that’s rigorous,” says Sias. Karamu’s Summer Arts Intensive is available to 6th–12th grade students, but they have programming opportunities for all ages.
“When any child enrolls in a class, the parent can take any class for free,” says Sias. “Those families certainly enjoy a different conversation on their drive home.”
The arts are a proven economic engine for development and inclusive job opportunities. That’s why Cleveland Clinic, Karamu House and Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation (FRDC) have partnered in projects along Quincy Avenue and the Opportunity Corridor.
Karamu has been an arts anchor for the Fairfax neighborhood since its inception. “We want Karamu to [continue to] be a social hub, a gathering place for our increasingly diverse audiences from across the region,” says Shareef.
“Karamu’s placemaking projects have helped revitalize the whole neighborhood,” says Denise VanLeer, Executive Director, FRDC.
Grounded in its storied past
With one foot stepping into its next century, Karamu is keeping its other foot planted in its rich cultural history. They partnered with Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland History Center and the Cleveland Public Library to digitize and organize its vast historical archives for online access.
“We have carefully preserved our artifacts of Cleveland history, African American theatre history, American theatre history and Fairfax history. Now we want to share it.”
VanLeer sums up Karamu’s impact: “Karamu is a great, energetic partner. I am happy to see it thriving, growing and producing outstanding theatre. The leadership and staff have brought excitement back to this national treasure – and to the Fairfax community, the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.”