Setting the Stage Sam Wilson's arena is local theater

February 21, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

It's 6:30 on a weekday night, and Sam Wilson has already pu in a full day's work teaching college. Now he is facing some particularly pressing problems.

A woman wants to know if her form-fitting red dress is revealing too much -- uh -- bosom.

No. That's the idea.

A man inquires whether to look intimidating or non-committal.

Neither. Try looking condescending.

Another man is anxious because the suit he is wearing is dark blue instead of black.

The suit's fine. Really it is.

Despite the interruptions of harried actors bursting into his office to fuss over their appearance, the 71-year-old Mr. Wilson remains unflappable. He jokes. He reassures. He offers suggestions. As artistic director and one of the founders of the Arena Players Inc., he's been through this before.

"It's been 40 long years," Mr. Wilson says. Four decades of bringing plays to the community, directing productions, making sure there's enough money to keep the doors open and calming nervous actors.

"We've kept it going because we always have had a great group of people and a kind of a family system here," he says. "There's no star system. I may be cleaning up one day, serving punch or taking tickets another day."

Cleaning duties notwithstanding, as director he also chooses the six or seven plays presented at the community theater each year. And Mr. Wilson looks every inch "the director." He is slim and casually dressed, and has gray hair puffing out underneath a beaked cap sitting jauntily on his head. His expressive eyes often twinkle with humor, and other times are quietly reflective as he recalls how -- and why -- the community theater began.

"Segregation," he explains. "There was one black [theater] group back in 1947 or 1948, but then it kind of faded out and we couldn't join any other group," Mr. Wilson says.

By the time 1953 rolled around, about eight star-struck and very determined friends decided to form their own theater group. In the beginning, they didn't come together for altruistic reasons.

"We did not start it to provide entertainment; we started it for ourselves," says Mr. Wilson. "We wanted to give people an opportunity to express themselves."

Mary Carter Smith, a Baltimore griot, has known Mr. Wilson for 45 years. She was there at the beginning.

"I remember it was on a Sunday when Sam called us over to his house and told us about his dream," says Mrs. Smith, who still appears in some of the plays.

"Sam is gifted. He's sensitive. He has so much patience. Sam is theater," she says. To say that the Arena Players started small is something of an understatement. Their first production was a one-act drama by William Saroyan titled "Hello Out There."

And the audience? A small but dedicated group of acquaintances who were outnumbered by the performers. Time has allowed Mr. Wilson to poke fun at those early days.

"Really, if we had 12 people in the play, then we had 10 people in the audience. They were family and friends who only came because they wanted to know what we were up to. They were an enthusiastic audience, though. They clapped hard," he says, laughing at the memory.

As the years went by, the ratio of audience to actors steadily began to shift. Year after year, the Arena Players returned and gained a reputation as a place that highlighted the work of African-American playwrights.

Now it has become an institution. In fact, it is the oldest continuously operating black theater in the country, Mr. Wilson says. Some people who went to the plays as children have joined the Arena Players as performers.

Eric Jones is a 17-year-old City College senior whose parents started bringing him to Arena Players productions as a toddler. "I remember being little and being toted to that theater," he says.

When Eric got older, he became more than a fan. He became an actor. First, he joined the Youtheatre at the Arena Players. Now he is acting with the adult ensemble. "I live and breathe this stuff," Eric says of the theater world.

He's also appreciative of Mr. Wilson as a director. "He helps mold you and he lets you know if something is wrong. But he gives you freedom. . . . He leaves room for interpretation," Eric says.

Many moves

Over the years, the theater lovers in the community had to be a devoted group to keep up with the organization's many moves.

That first play was presented in a building on the campus of Coppin State College. The group has worked out of the Druid Hill branch of the YMCA, St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Baltimore and Morgan State University's Murphy Auditorium.

It moved into its current home on McCulloh Street in 1961. A building -- which it now owns -- that came with a bit of history, it was used by a local undertaker to store coffins before the Arena Players took over.

"When we came here, we had to move coffins out of the way," Mr. Wilson says of the building, which has since undergone extensive renovations.

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