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Cleveland's historic Karamu House poised for next chapter

During the coronavirus pandemic, Karamu House has expanded its reach through virtual productions but is already planning its post-pandemic return.

CLEVELAND — Cleveland's Karamu House is the nation's oldest African American producing theater, but in the midst of the pandemic, they're welcoming new opportunities.

"We now are reaching so many people with our message of giving information," Karamu House President and CEO Tony Sias said. "We want to entertain, educate, celebrate and activate the community."

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As Karamu recently made the shift from in-person to online productions, Mr. Sias says he welcomes these new virtual opportunities.

"Over the past year, since we've been streaming, there has been a shift," he said. You know I'm an old school theater guy so moving into the virtual space I have to better understand you know my role and relationship with the camera, that I don't need to look into the stage I need to be looking into a monitor."

Sias says that in the last year, Karamu House has also been able to provide opportunities for young artists to contribute to their body of work.

"We've been able to reach thousands of people in the virtual space. We did a piece honoring Juneteenth called 'Freedom on Junteenth' and our goal was to reach 10,000 households and we exceeded that, reaching 50,000 people." 

The pandemic-led shift into virtual content has allowed Karamu to present in ways that were previously impossible and this year's Black History Month production is no different.

"Here at Karamu House we celebrate Black History Month every month and what's been unique about this year's Black History Month celebration is that we partnered with The Musical Theater Project presenting a piece called 'The Impact of Shuffle Along'," Sias explained. "It was filmed here at Karamu House in February of 2019. We were originally supposed to reproduce and mount the show here this year but of course, we can't do that, so we are re-airing that production."

But virtual content isn't the end-all-be-all. Karamu's post-pandemic plans are already underway.

RELATED: Watch again: 'Freedom After Juneteenth' voter awareness event, featuring Karamu performance & panel discussion

"Over the last several years we've been doing phases of renovation, and part of our phase three renovation is an outdoor stage. Having that as an option is going to be ideal as we continue to get vaccinated and the vaccine getting in more arms, so we look forward to having an outdoor stage for the community to experience and see new works and concerts here at Karamu House and as Karamu continues its over 100-year legacy."

Mr. Sias looks toward the impact he wants to make on the next 100 years.

"Legacy is is a hard thing to define but one of the things that's been most important to me is that I leave the institution better than I found it," Sias said. "And that would include having a sound financial endowment to ensure a long-term sustainability of the institution and that we have created a body of work that has not only entertained audiences but has triggered social awareness and consciousness to make positive steps towards change."

Editor's note: the video in the player below is from a story published in Feb. of 2019: