Kelly Strayhorn Theater leader beats drum for stretch of Penn Avenue
Janera Solomon walks from her office at Alloy Studios in Friendship down Penn Avenue, past afternoon shoppers and busy construction workers.
She stops at North Whitfield Street in East Liberty near the site where two hotels are to be built.
“In my dream, when you're on this block, you'll think you're on a theater square,” she said, sweeping her hand.
Solomon, executive director of Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, plans to announce her vision to expand her arts group and help develop the four-block stretch on Penn into a mini-cultural district on the 100th anniversary of her theater, originally Regent Theatre, on Oct. 16. Her group received a three-year grant of $1.05 million from The Heinz Endowments in May to expand.
“She is revered and greatly respected by her peers in the arts community, the funding community, locally and nationally,” said Janet L. Sarbaugh, senior program director of arts and culture for Heinz. “This big investment reflects our beliefs that what Janera and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater are doing in the East End plays a role in the vibrancy of that neighborhood, beyond what a traditional space might provide.”
Solomon, 39, of Highland Park has no idea what it would cost to turn Penn Avenue into a mini-cultural district. But she turned around the troubled Kelly Strayhorn and is leading the charge to salvage the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
She took over the Kelly Strayhorn in 2008 when it went through a series of openings, closings and re-openings.
She started by asking neighbors what they wanted from the theater. They told her they wanted it open more often. She reached out to artists and art groups, churches and neighborhood groups, to fill it. The theater merged with the financially struggling Dance Alloy in 2011, offering more programs at both sites. As a result, Kelly Strayhorn has offered 300 events this year, compared with 235 last year, according to its July 15 application for funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District.
“I've known Janera for over 10 years and have always found her to be very insightful and realistic, and she seems to have a great grasp of how to help and support artists,” said Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, where she is vice president of the board. “A lot of that comes from the fact that she's a musician and comes from a musical family.”
Solomon lived in Guyana in South America until 9. Her mother, Marilyn, is a nurse, and her father, Phil, a steel drum maker and performer. Solomon began playing the steel drum when she was big enough to hold a mallet.
The family moved to New York City and then Pittsburgh. She and her three sisters played in a Caribbean band, Tropical Adventure.
As a high school student, Solomon said she cried from stage fright before performing. “My mother would clean up my face and say, ‘Janera, stop those tears,' ” Solomon recalled. While in high school, she began writing her name in lowercase as a “quiet form of rebellion.”
The shyness continues. She acknowledges nervousness when she goes on stage at the Kelly Strayhorn to welcome the audience.
Despite her success, not all has gone smoothly. In June, former employee Candace L. Feldman filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court against the theater. The lawsuit contends that Solomon fired Feldman because she reported to the group's board that the executive director was paying her father as much as $36,000 a year for steel drums worth just $10,000 to $15,000.
“I'm not sure how one assesses the value of art,” Solomon told the Trib.
This year, she joined the August Wilson Center Recovery Committee and led a series of community meetings to learn about residents' vision for the black cultural arts center named for the famed playwright who grew up in the Hill District.
“She put herself at risk trying to save the August Wilson Center,” said Scott Stoner, director of programs and resources for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in Washington. “If anybody can rise above adversity in a situation like that and lead a way out, I think it would be her.”
Solomon attributes the center's problems to having to build its organization as it was building its facility.
“Maybe I'm an eternal optimist, but five years is too short to determine that it's an impossible effort,” she said.
Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or firstname.lastname@example.org.