Since 2015 – upon taking over as president and CEO of Karamu House, Inc., America’s oldest African American producing theater – Tony F. Sias has turned obstacles into opportunities.
But in light of the current pandemic, some tough decisions had to be made first. immediately cancelled what remained of its 2019-20 mainstage season, which included the regional premiere of Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love and its production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal. Forty-eight freelance artist contracts were annulled, though artists received compensation for the work that had been done to date. All educational programming on site was suspended and participants were notified. The popular and successful annual summer fundraiser, the Second Line Parade and Sneaker Ball, was cancelled as well.
On to the opportunities.
While seasonal and part-time employees were placed on furlough, Tony was able to retain 12 full-time employees to keep Karamu afloat by applying for and receiving a forgivable loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Karamu also used the inability to offer its arts education programs at its facility as a chance to develop and start up online programs that are sustainable and will be integrated into the curriculum once the crisis has passed.
Karamu had already named its “Room in the House” recipients for spring 2020. This artist-in-residency program is funded through a Cuyahoga Arts & Culture grant and is designed to help artists be more empowered and independent by offering a stipend, technical support, professional development and a physical workspace within the Karamu House facility. Rather than cancel the program, Tony and his staff arranged for the residency to proceed in a remote, virtual environment so that Karamu still has an opportunity to work with these talented individuals – Kaylene Abernathy, a digital illustration artist; Moises Borges De Freitas, a native of Salvador, Brazil, who celebrates his African heritage and culture through music and movement; Jacoby DuBose, a film, music and stage artist; and Gary Galbreath, a piano professional with a passion for educating youth – even during this unprecedented COVID19 pandemic.
“We are a celebrated, historical, legendary organization,” adds Tony. “As such, we have always asked ourselves ‘how do we not just survive but thrive?’ And the answer has always been and continues to be innovation and resourcefulness.”
For a message from Tony Sias, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QzxO4URne0&feature=youtu.be
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