With a 100-year celebration in the rearview, Karamu House – the historic arts institution – just kicked off its opening season ready to mark year 101 as a crash course in Karamuology. Hours before opening night, Executive Director Tony Sias chatted with the C&P about its present season, the future of the organization and the ghosts of Karamu past.
The new season opened Friday, Sept. 9 with a nearly two-hour long upbeat, funny and a tad bit risqué revue-style musical called “Blues in the Night.” Written by Sheldon Epps, it was a Tony-nominated production adopted by Karamu and directed by Reggie Kelly – who also stars in the production alongside Susan Hughes, Nicole Sumlin, Michele Edwards Whitfield, Kevin Marr and Imani Jackson. “It’s a really cool piece; a compilation of various blues tunes that are very familiar to most,” Sias said noting the songs by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Alberta Hunter, Jimmy Cox, Ida Cox and others. “It tells the story of three women in love with this one man. The play takes place in a hotel and each woman has her own room in the hotel and the story is told through each room. What I love about this particular production, the director added two dancers to the piece. It gives it the next level of theatricality. It is our season opener and we are excited about this piece because it comes on the heels of us launching our strategic plan in January. One of our goals was to elevate and increase the quality of our productions. This production and this season is the first step in Karamu 2.0.”
Although he is no stranger to Karamu, Sias has only been with the organization just shy of a year, handpicked by the board to turn the age-old institution around. He must have been the man for the job because whether you view his decisions as good or bad, that’s exactly what he did. “In June of 2015 Karamu had its big 100-year celebration,” Sias said. “That was the launch. I got here after those things had begun and I got a really good sense of the lay of the land. I have experience here as an actor and director many, many years ago. We’ve had a couple of ups and downs over the past year, but this is all in an effort to move Karamu forward.”
Some things are just synonymous with Karamu, so naturally theater-goers will want to know if the plan is to continue merging the old with the new or is this slate completely wiped clean? Sias answered saying, “Our new mission is to produce professional theater, provide arts education and present community programs for all people by honoring the African-American experience. I think we are building on the rich legacy of Karamu and all of the great productions. I think we will continue to look at some of the things we’ve done in the past and re-imagine those. We will do new pieces that are off Broadway or off Off Broadway and use new and innovative writers and still do things in the tradition of Karamu in terms of using old pieces with non-traditional casting so there will be a wealth of diversity on our stage moving forward and that’s in the spirit of how Karamu was founded.”
In the spirit of remaining true to its roots while branching off into other endeavors, Karamu also plans to present different forms of entertainment such as jazz concerts with artists presenting cabaret sets. “This allows artists not to be conformed to a play or a musical but to say that we are a cultural arts institution that presents all forms of arts and entertainment,” said Sias.
The programming for this is set to roll out in less than two weeks in terms of what artists will be presenting between now and Dec. 31. Beginning Jan. 1, one of the biggest transformations at Karamu is set to begin with the theater wing of the building undergoing renovation for eight months. The Arena Theater and the Jeliffe Theater will both receive a facelift – new seats, new lighting, upgrades to the lobby, signage and more. During the renovation, productions will be housed in the community. “It’s highly probable that we will be doing one or both of our last two shows at Tri-C East,” the executive director said.
Karamu will give back to the community providing new arts education classes – dance, theater, vocal music and poetry in 12-week sessions Sept. 19 – Dec. 14. Classes are for children as well as adults. “Karamu is a place where young and old can come and experience what’s new,” he said. “The doors of the House are open and we just want to welcome everyone back. We welcome any feedback or comments on what you’d like to see here. Come audition, take classes and let’s reestablish Karamu as a national treasure that’s right here in our community.”
And with all that Karamu 2.0 has in store for us, what is it that the community can do for Karamu? “Come to Karamu,” Sias said. “Get a season subscription. You can see five productions for $150; generally one night out alone will cost you $150 whether you’re going to the club or enjoying downtown. So, I think seeing five productions for $150 is a great bargain.”
See “Blues in the Night” now through Oct. 2. Tickets: $37. Visit www.karamuhouse.org for the 2016-2017 season schedule and other details.