Tony Fitzgerald Sias
2019 BARBARA S. ROBINSON PRIZE
When he was eleven, Tony Sias was hired to appear in an educational video for the public television station in his hometown of Jackson, MS. The nameplate on his dressing room door said “Mr. Tony Sias.” Inside, the mirror was surrounded by small lights, just as he imagined. “I didn’t have to go to school that day, and we shot on location, so that was cool,” he remembers. “We had a nice lunch, so being a practicing artist became something I wanted to do in my life.”
Knowing the way to become a professional was through study, he eventually enrolled at Jackson State University. He quickly realized that as an actor, he wanted to avoid becoming a starving artist by having the security of employment as an administrator, too. One of his professors, Dr. Tommie “Tonea” Stewart became an early role model because she also had a role on the TV program “In the Heat of the Night” and worked in films.
He earned his BS degree in dramatic arts in 1988 and his MFA degree in acting from Ohio University in 1992. As part of his terminal degree program through OU, Tony became an intern and resident at the Cleveland Play House in 1991. After graduating, he stayed in Cleveland and began acting in several of the city’s theaters and doing print and television work as an actor/model. In 1992, he remembers being so impressed by the quality of the first play he saw at Karamu, Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the popular opera The Mikado, that he said to himself, “One day, I want to lead this institution.”
Tony got his first job in Cleveland when then CPH Education Director Bill Hoffman told him about a media therapy position at the Rap Art Center formerly a division of the Center for Families and Children, a social service agency for youth in Cleveland Heights. The program used the arts to promote behavioral health and positive social skills among adolescents. While there, Tony launched the award-winning Young African-American Male (YAAM) program that had a significant impact on the boys’ attendance and participation in school.
Tony says he was deeply inspired by his mother, Helen Walker Sias, who taught home economics and child development for 34 years. He and his siblings never forgot the lessons they learned about community involvement by watching her coach basketball, direct a dance ensemble, and run the theater program and other social events. “She used the arts as a vehicle for convening community, bringing families together and inspiring young people to do something with their lives.”
In 2001, Tony joined the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and in 2006 became the Director of Arts Education. Before and after taking that position, he continued to perform and direct productions throughout the city at several theaters, including Karamu House. In 2003, while still working for the school district, he became the director of the All-City Arts Program + Musical and in 2011 he concurrently served as the Artistic Director of the Cleveland School of the Arts. He also taught at Cuyahoga Community College for ten years.
Four years ago, Tony was named President + CEO of Karamu House. He has led a tremendous financial and artistic turnaround at the historic theater. Under his guidance, Karamu recently received a $1.5 million grant from the George Gund Foundation and a $2 million grant from the Cleveland Foundation to fund the third phase in its recent comprehensive restoration project and to ensure it remains an anchor in the historic Fairfax neighborhood.
“Tony practices collaborative leadership,” says Aseelah Shareef, director, Operations + Community Engagement, Karamu House. “While he is responsible for driving the vision of Karamu, he makes room at the table for all voices and empowers his team to embrace learning and excellence; he has created a culture of continuous improvement that continues to elevate the legacy of Karamu House.”
His remaining goals to enhance Karamu’s place as “the citadel of African-American cultural arts in the US” include completing renovations to the theater wing, starting Karamu’s first endowment fund, and completing the master plan to finish work on the balance of the campus.
“Under my leadership, our team and Board have achieved unprecedented accomplishments,” Tony concludes. “Making strategic investments to hire and build an effective team, implement industry standards and intentionally engage 21st century audiences has allowed us to restore this historic theatre to its proper place on the national stage.”