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 Theater. It’s known as the oldest black theater 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 when Karamu House’s President and CEO Tony Sias invites theater 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 theater in the country, for a premier theater experience.”
Rooted in this proud heritage, the 100+ year-old Karamu House has set a course for its second act, Karamu 2.0.
“Our vision is 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 nearly 30 years 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 Theater, its largest stage, has been renovated. The theater also received a $2 million grant to boost its role in the Fairfax community as a cultural, social and educational anchor.
Aseelah Shareef, Director of Operations and Community Engagement, explained the important changes in staffing.
“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: theater, community programming and arts education. She also curates culturally and socially relevant arts education for the neighborhood.
Karamu has added breadth to its community programming, such as music, comedy, 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. Cleveland School of the Arts brings students between Kindergarten and eighth grade for arts education. Karamu’s Summer Arts Intensive is offered to 7th-12th grade students.
“And 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.”
In response to a national shortage, a new Technical Theater Training pilot program looks to train women and people of color, age 19-24, in technical theater — the sound, set, lighting, scenic and costuming arts that bring productions to life.
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 new Opportunity Corridor.
Karamu has been an arts anchor for the Fairfax neighborhood for over a century.
“Karamu’s new place making projects are helping to revitalize the whole neighborhood,” says Denise VanLeer, Executive Director, FRDC.
The Cleveland Foundation grant the theater received will enhance patron comfort with improvement projects — a new audience lounge, renovated lobbies, an outdoor plaza and bistro.
“We want Karamu to be a social hub, a gathering place for our increasingly diverse audiences from across the region,” says Shareef.
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’re partnering 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 Theater history, American Theater history and Fairfax history. Now we want to share it.”
Van Leer sums up Karamu’s impact. “Karamu is a great, energetic partner. I am happy to see it thriving, growing and producing outstanding theater. The leadership and staff have brought excitement back to this national treasure – and to the Fairfax community, the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.”