The President of the Country's Oldest Black Theater Explains Why Diverse Perspectives Matter

Karamu House has been a fixture in Cleveland for more than a century. We asked president and CEO Tony F. Sias about the role Black theaters play today.

Nestled in Cleveland's historic Fairfax neighborhood, Karamu House is the longest-running Black theater in the United States. It was a hub of creativity during the Harlem Renaissance, hosting literary legends such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Today, the theater annually presents Hughes' Black Nativity, as well as a slate of other performances and educational programming. To learn more about that, we chatted with president and CEO Tony F. Sias, a leader in Cleveland's arts and education communities.

Performers at Black Nativity in Cleveland
Black Nativity evolves each year as directors reinterpret the work with new costumes and orchestration. Kayla Lupean for Destination Cleveland

How did Karamu House come to be?

Karamu was founded in 1915 by social workers Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, who initially primarily served Eastern European immigrants. The story goes that there were two little Black boys on the front porch looking in on the festivities. The Jelliffes invited the boys in, pivoting from serving their people to serving the people. Acknowledgement and preservation of the Black experience has been central to the mission of this theater from early on.

What goes on behind the scenes at Karamu House to fulfill that mission?

A lot of thought goes into what shows we produce on our stage, but we also think about inclusivity in every aspect of our hiring, from actors to carpenters to lighting designers. Many designers haven't had the opportunities to light melanated people, and this requires skills and knowledge. Something people often don't think about—especially if they aren't versed in the intricacies of putting on a show—is how to light the show in a way that is aesthetically balancing for the entire range of [skin] hues on stage while also fitting the tone of the story. This is just one of the ways that we fulfill our mission of honoring the Black experience through the arts.

What role do Black theaters (or other culturally specific arts organizations) play in a community?

Images are very powerful. When you think about the murder of Emmett Till and his mother's decision to have an open casket at the funeral, she exposed the country in a visceral way to the ugliness of their hatred and its horrific consequences. Without this, the Civil Rights Movement may not have started at the same time. The same can be said of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd. With that video, you had undeniable proof of what's going on.

But proof is not always the same as reflection. Black theater serves as a place for processing, sharing and reveling in community—Black theater has always been about the good and the not so good that happens with us and to us. But these stories have to be told through our lens. It is important that these narratives be told, and I think that up until the Harlem Renaissance, images and narratives around Black life were aligned to systemic racism and malevolent images that did not accurately depict who we are. So we have owned our agency and in turn have created art that is for everyone. You don't need to be Black to find meaning and value in Black stories.

Portrait shot of Tony F. Sias
Tony F. Sias.

Tell me more about that. How do the arts invite people into a perspective that is unfamiliar to them?

I kind of live by the mantra that at Karamu we want people to learn in and through the arts. We want to use the arts and our craft and our product and our productions, as a means not just to entertain, but to educate communities about culture, and create and activate change.

Engaging with the "not-so-good" experiences you mentioned before can trigger pain and emotion—both for the cast and crew and also the audience. How do you allow space for people's feelings?

Our first step is always to have resources for our performers, starting when people are first cast for a role—to help support developing a character and processing being in the run of a show. Caring for our artists is so important because the people on the stage are really immersing themselves in these characters. So that constant check-in, that constant debriefing, that constant reflection throughout the process of creating and performing a show is really crucial. We will also often put resources into our programs for our audiences, and we really value post-show conversations as a way of checking in with people, offering support and hearing feedback.

One of the things that's important to me is to not retraumatize our audience. We have to think critically about presenting the "not so good" in a way that we don't lose the essence of the story or lose what we're trying to communicate, while not causing unnecessary harm or retraumatization. Our work that we're doing here is really focused on entertaining while concurrently educating you about the Black experience and socially relevant issues. We then create space for reflection in post-show conversations and panel discussions about social strategic steps towards intentional change. It's very important that we are not solo in these movements, but are collective in our thoughts and education efforts.

This is such valuable work you do. What's next for Karamu House?

We are experiencing an incredible renaissance at Karamu House. With the support of our Community Foundation's organizations and an incredible board we are now focused on Karamu Next Generation. We've survived 108 years, but there are so many other theaters that are no longer with us. I want to pay homage to all of those who are not here and those who continue to be here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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