Kelly Strayhorn Theater Leader Helps Ushers East Liberty into the Future


If it weren’t for the electric blue neon sign, it would be entirely possible that someone could amble past the Kelly Strayhorn Theater without a second glance. But that attention-grabbing sign is there and the residence it adorns does deserve a closer look.

Named for East Liberty performing arts great Gene Kelly and Homewood composer Billy Strayhorn, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater aims to preserve and nurture Pittsburgh’s cultural excellence.
On the front-line of that charge is Janera Solomon, executive director of the theater. Solomon has made her life’s work to reclaim East Liberty’s lost culture.

“We still want to be the place that is recognizable as East Liberty. The place that helps reconnect people to the East Liberty of the past and the East Liberty of the future, and what that means, to us, is being a place that reflects the diversity of the community,” Solomon says.

On the edge of East Liberty’s shopping district, the theater shares the distinct 20th century architecture that characterizes the neighborhood. However, instead of repurposing the aged property for apartments, shops or a restaurant, the Kelly Strayhorn is a reincarnation of the structure’s old host, the Regent Theater.

Passing under the building’s facade is like passing into another time. The lights and adornments that populate the entry fade the world beyond the nearby sidewalk and bring the Kelly Strayhorn’s patrons back several decades. Back to a time when going to theater was something significant to the community and not just a place for two people to spend too much money on popcorn and the fourth installment of a Michael Bay movie franchise.

firststrayhornnewDuring Solomon’s six years with the Kelly Strayhorn Theater the neighborhood of East Liberty has grown and changed. “Keeping up with the times” – as Solomon puts it – is essential to the prosperity of the community. The theater’s operating budget has grown from approximately $300,000 to more than $1 million. Roughly 20,000 people attend events there each year. The organization has tripled its programming and now supports a robust co-producing program with an additional venue, Alloy Studios. The organization’s activities include rehearsals, community meetings, luncheons, workshops, master classes and family/youth activities.

Sixty percent of the theater’s audience and participants are residents of the East End. As executive director, Solomon finds that the mixture of class, educational background, race, sexual orientation and nationality that she observes in her attendees is encouraging. The Kelly Strayhorn Theater is truly a cultural hub.

“We’ve built our program on the foundation that having art in your life every day is possible, you don’t need a special occasion to go to the theater,” Solomon explains. The organization strives to be the place in the neighborhood where people want to come to everyday because they feel welcomed.

Moving to the United States from Guyana, South America as a young girl, Solomon would discover her passion for art through the lens of an old camera. For her, art knew no color, class or creed.

Around the age of nine, Solomon began questioning the world around her. She can vividly recall one of her first experiences at a museum in the United States.

“Oh I must have gone on a school field trip, and I can remember staring at the artwork, and thinking I don’t see any black works of art, or even artwork done by a black artist,” she says.
Solomon, who began playing the steel drum when she was big enough to hold a mallet, told her father, a steel drum maker and artist, about her museum experience. “You know what he told me? He told me to make some artwork of my own,” Solomon says with a huge grin.

At the time she had never even attempted to draw let alone create what she considered art, but the very next day her father brought home an old camera from the thrift store. It was in that moment that she found her inner passion and, more importantly, her drive. Solomon believes that everyone deserves that moment.

“My parents taught me like Frederick Douglass’ famous quote, ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress,’” she says.

A mother of four, she credits her thirst for artistic expression to her parents. “They came to the United States with no money, and four young girls,” explains Solomon. Being the daughter of immigrants she was taught to never allow obstacles stand in the way of her dreams.

East Liberty faces a number of challenges, but Solomon is confident that despite growing educational and economical gaps, there still remains a sense of hope. “I personally believe that it is when you are at your worst that you need art the most.”

Solomon and theater members like Londen Malloy are aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to have their artistic impulses nurtured.

“I get people all the time who can’t afford to attend one of our productions, and if they come to us and let us know we are more than willing to give them a ticket, or work something out where they too can participate in our activities,” Malloy says.

Malloy and Solomon agree that the Kelly Strayhorn benefits from the rich artistic community in the East End. “We have events going on all the time at both the theater and the Alloy studios. We have an entire showcase dedicated to local artists,” Malloy says.

The Kelly Strahorn is also committed to fostering the work of returning artists as they grow.

“What we are doing is making people feel good about themselves — letting them know that they are worth the very best,” Solomon says.

Art and artistic expression is more so about the process of creating the piece than the final product.

“There are so many wonderful things to appreciate, and it’s our job to be a place that reminds people and reconnects people to what’s great and wonderful in the world,” Solomon says.