Arena Players' apogee was Hughes' musical

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 10, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

At my request, Sam Wilson Jr., 72, searches his mind, looking for that one special instant in time, that defining moment in the 40-year history of Baltimore's Arena Players.

"Ha!" he exclaims at last. "That's like asking Lionel Hampton to name his favorite song."

Wilson is a professor of literature and drama at Coppin State University and one of the founders of the oldest, continuously running black theater group in the country. He served as the troupe's first president and has been its artistic director for better than two decades.

"There were a lot of special moments," Wilson continues thoughtfully. "The most special moment, I guess, always seemed to be the moment we were in at the time."

And yet, there may have been one special occasion.

It was around 1967, remembers Wilson, when Arena Players Inc., decided to mount a production of the Langston Hughes musical, "Tambourines to Glory."

" 'Tambourines' had been performed millions of times and with some of the biggest names in show business at the time. Brilliant stars. Great actresses and actors. And it is a very fine piece of work. Yet for some reason it never seemed to click with audiences," says Wilson.

"So, in 1966 or 1967, whichever it was, we planned to stage 'Tambourines' ourselves, partly as a tribute to Langston. When I went up to New York and told Langston about it, he was very pleased, very excited. He said, 'Yes, indeed. Save me a seat and I'll be there.' "

But Hughes went into the hospital while the cast was still in rehearsal.

"He even called us from his hospital bed to assure us that he was all right, that it wasn't serious. But he never came out,"

Wilson recalls.

Hughes died of congestive heart failure May 22, 1967, a week before the musical's opening.

"On opening night, somebody said, 'Let's do this for Langston.' And we went out and it was so, so emotional. It was probably our peak performance ever," remembers Wilson.

Arena Players is launching its 40th season tomorrow with a four-week performance of the James Weldon Johnson gospel musical, "God's Trombones."

In keeping with Arena Players' mission as a community theater, "God's Trombones" will feature an energetic cast of talented amateurs. The musical will be produced by dedicated volunteers and will be used to reach out to the community at large.

Some 16 different area ministers have been invited to perform one of the sermons in the script during the musical's run.

Other shows scheduled this year include "The Rabbit Foot," a drama by Leslie Lee; a youth theater production of August Wilson's drama, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"; a black history production of Don Evans' "The Trials and Tribulations of Staggerlee Booker T. Brown";"Checkmates" by Ron Milner; and "Eyes," a musical by Mari Evans based on Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Arena Players opens this season more comfortable with its niche as a community theater. It was founded at a time when Baltimore theater was segregated. It went through periods when it aspired to become the city's professional black alternative theater and when it saw itself as revolutionary or avant-garde. At times, it teetered on the brink of extinction.

Today, Arena Players sees itself as a theater of opportunity for both amateur performers and fledgling writers. By reaching out to schools, churches and fraternal organizations, it has found a small but loyal core of supporters. It attracts people who traditionally have not attended the theater.

"I'll tell you what I'm proudest of, though," says Wilson. "I'm proud of the fact that we've had a core group of people who have worked together for. . .40 years, consoling each other, inspiring each other, keeping the spirit of Arena Players alive.

"They say that our people cannot work together, that we cannot maintain our institutions. Well, we've had it together for 40 years. I do not despair for my people."

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