Home in America: Pittsburgh, PA

BY TRACY GEIBEL

As a young girl growing up in Guyana, she was content watching her father make art.  She grew taller, she grew older, but she also grew in her love for art and knew at an early age that it would be a significant part of her life.

Executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, janera solomon has been able to share her love of the arts with the entire community.

She considers herself to be a rule-follower, but spells her name in lowercase as a form of rebellion, a safe form of rebellion.  She began writing it that way in elementary school and has been doing so ever since.

solomon came to America when she was nine years old.  Her father worried about the country’s future, but more so about his four daughters and their futures.  solomon explained that Prime Minister Ptolemy A. Reid had become progressively more conservative, worrying artists and intellectuals alike.  More so, the country’s economic crisis was lowering the living standard.  Like other countries in the Caribbean region, Guyana struggled because its most common exports yielded low income. 

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Her father’s seven siblings and most family friends had already moved to America when the family made the decision to go.

“My parents, I think… were really holding on, really optimistic about it [Guyana],” solomon said. “I think, they just decided that they didn’t want to put our lives at stake for that.”

“Here you can do anything, but where we were from there limitations on what you could be,” she continued.

She remembers her childhood in Guyana fondly.  She recalls exploring the neighborhood with fellow children, something she can’t imagine her six-year-old daughter, Mira, doing.

“The first ten years of us being here, I begged my parents every day to go back,” she said.

“I really missed, and I still miss the warmth and friendliness of Caribbean culture.”

She struggled to find that type of environment in America.  Then, she found Pittsburgh.  While it’s not comparable to her Guyana home in weather, population, and other factors, she found friendship here.  solomon said it was the best of the cities she has worked in, though New Orleans was a close second.

She was hired at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in 2008 as the executive director, despite her self-described lack of experience for such a position.  She had no formal instruction in the arts, but had an intense passion for it.

“Working in the theater wasn’t something I planned to do,” solomon said.

In fact, she didn’t know what she wanted to do.  She had lived in Pittsburgh previously before moving away, but came back to the city to get married.  Someone at a fellowship suggested the position to her, and she decided to take the chance.

“I was really surprised to get the job because I hadn’t run a theater before.  I hadn’t run a building, any building, and I didn’t have a formal arts training,” solomon said.

But she was excited to accept the position. She explained that she is “drawn” to challenges.

“Figuring out how to bring the theater out of debt and revive it and make it something people cared about seemed like an incredible challenge in 2008 while we were having a recession,” she said.

The theater had two people on the staff at the time.  People would cringe when she told them where she worked.

“It was pretty lonely,” she said.

But she found a sense of belonging with the nearby business owners.  Around the corner from the theater were places like the Shadow Lounge and a waffle shop.

“I never paid for lunch,” she said.

But they provided her with much more than a free lunch. She called them her “therapists.” They would sit and listen intently when she was upset, and she would do the same for them.

Now when solomon mentions the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, people’s reactions are positive.

“They say, ‘oh really that must be great,’” solomon said.

She believes she has succeeded, but continually strives for more.  Last year, the theater launched a digital publication called “1839” with the help of Damon Young, the co-editor of the online magazine and editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas (VSB).  More recently, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater joined the National Performance Network (NPN), an organization supporting artists and their contemporary and visual work.  Members of the NPN are added by invitation only.

“The good news about being in the network is that there’s funding for member organizations to support creating new work for artists who are taking risks,” solomon said, “which is what we’ve been doing for eight years.”

According to solomon, the woman who reviewed dance for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, questioned whether or not the Kelly Strayhorn Theater could have successful with a dance program in a city where such programs were already established elsewhere.  In December 2010, Vranish’s top ten dances of the year included two from the Kelly Strayhorn, “Revue” and “India—A Light Within.”

solomon said that this woman later approached her to say that she has “helped the dance community, the dance scene, in Pittsburgh grow up” and made artists push themselves to their potential.

solomon loves to travel and has visited Guyana on several occasions.  She enjoys reading as well and flips through a print edition of the New York Times frequently.  She is married to Jeremy Resnick and has one daughter and three step-children.

Outside of her position at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, she opened an art gallery about two years ago.  She calls this her “creative outlet.”

This story was written as part of the 2016 Women’s Press Club Contest. 

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