The Renaissance of Karamu House

by | Apr 2, 2018 | Arts & Culture

Tony Sias showing Karamu renderings to EA staff.

Last week, EA’s staff met with Tony Sias, president and CEO of Karamu House, to tour this important professional theatre’s renovations and to learn more about the impact this theatre has on its neighborhood and Northeast Ohio. Tony took the reigns of the historic theatre a few years ago after impressive runs at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the Cleveland School of the Arts and is now leading its renaissance.

MLK, Jr. signature in guest book.

Karamu was founded in 1915 by Russell Jelliffe and Rowena Woodham, a pair of Oberlin grads who opened a settlement house at the corner of East 38th and Central Avenue. Their goal was to find common ground where people of different backgrounds could gather and share common ventures. All races, religions, and social and economic backgrounds were welcome. The settlement became a magnet for top African-American artists, including printmakers, actors, and writers. In 1941, the settlement was renamed Karamu, a Swahili word meaning “place of enjoyment in the center of the community.” Karamu House has been an important community resource and has seen support over the years from some very impressive people, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Carl Stokes, Hazel Mountain Walker, Walter Allen Rogers, Jr., Ruby Dee, James Picken, Jr., June Antoine, and Langston Hughes.

Tony Sias in Karamu’s archives with EA staff

Today, Karamu House provides arts education and presents community programs for all people while honoring the African-American experience. Upcoming shows include The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for GodPassing Strange, and The Karamu Comedy ShowKaramu’s 2016-2018 Strategic Plan outlines the theatre’s in-progress transformation to better serve its community and Northeast Ohio. The plan focuses on their programming, capacity building, capital improvements, and financial stability.
We began our tour of the complex in the Carl B. Stokes Room (Karamu is the proud owner of many of his archives). We then toured the many areas of renovation, which include…

  • Replacing roofing
  • Renovating restrooms
  • Making the house ADA compliant
  • Renovating the Jelliffe Theatre and lobby
  • Renovating the Arena Theatre and lobby
  • Renovating the Concert Hall as a permanent performance and presentation space
  • Redesigning and retaining the Stokes Room as a gallery and exhibition space (Karamu has an impressive archives collection!)

On our tour, Tony also provided some interesting information about Karamu’s neighborhood. The theatre is located in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood and is very dedicated to this community. Fairfax has many important cultural amenities, economic institutions, and significant works of religious architecture. The neighborhood is part of the greater University Circle area and is home to the Cleveland Clinic. The Fairfax neighborhood is being bolstered by the efforts of the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation and is the future home of the New Economy Neighborhood, a mixed-use technology district with office space, retail, housing, green space, and parking.

Karamu History Quilt

Interested in Karamu House and all it has to offer? Here are some interesting articles…
The Plain Dealer: Karamu House’s big comeback
FreshWater: Thriving in Fairfax: How Karamu House got its groove back
Broadway World: New Shaw Adaptation Receives American Premiere at Karamu House
American Theatre: Apetite for Construction: Builds and Rebuilds Across the U.S.