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Karamu House: From Humble Beginnings to Cultural Icon

02.14.2017

Not long after moving to Cleveland in the early 1990s, Tony Sias, an actor pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree, found himself watching a rehearsal at Karamu House, the oldest African-American performing arts theater in the United States.

While Sias was there, he met a director who asked him to do some vocal work with one the actors. That encounter provided the groundwork for Sias to become Karamu House’s President and Chief Executive Officer nearly 25 years later.

“I had never seen such incredible art being created from a community that was so passionate, so enriching,” Sias says, recalling his first brush with an institution named for the Swahili word meaning “a place for joyful gathering.” “It was the beginning of a long relationship.”

Ohio Historical Marker outlining the birth of Karamu HouseThis month, the documentary film “Karamu: 100 Years in the House” debuts, chronicling the incredible story of the first century of the community cultural center that became the first interracial theater in the U.S. and continues to be a training ground for performers and directors.

Produced by ideastream and underwritten by KeyBank and contributors to the ideastream Campaign for Community, the documentary is narrated by Cleveland native and “Grey’s Anatomy” cast member James Pickens, Jr., a Karamu House alum.

Over the years, Karamu House has served as a settlement haven for individuals moving to Cleveland’s urban center from the rural south, as a gathering place for like-minded arts aficionados, and as an educational center for those wishing to learn more about the performing arts.

The cast of an early performance of Hair

It hosted the first off-Broadway performance of the Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Ruby Dee and Sidney Portier. Dee’s image is depicted in a mural on one of Karamu House’s exterior walls.

Founded in 1915 by Oberlin University graduates Russell Jelliffe and Rowena Woodham, Karamu House was, from its humble beginnings, intended “as a place for people from all races, ethnicities and socio-economic statuses to come together, to create art, to experience art, and to learn about themselves and the community,” Sias says.

David M. Reynolds, the head of Key Private Bank, serves as chairman of Karamu House’s Board of Directors. He helped oversee a recent transitional phase in which Karamu House has realigned its mission to develop more community arts education and literacy programming in addition to its commitment to professional theater productions.

“Karamu is a cultural icon in Cleveland,” Reynolds says. “Through its history and enriching programs, the community impact has been invaluable. We’re proud to support this film and celebrate its centennial anniversary.”

“Karamu: 100 Years in the House” premiers Friday, Feb. 17, at 9 p.m. on PBS, with encore broadcasts at the following times:

  • Sunday, Feb. 19 at 1:30 a.m., 3 p.m. and 11 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 10 p.m.
  • Friday, Feb. 24 at 2 a.m.

To learn more about Karamu House, please visit http://www.karamuhouse.org/.

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