Everyone has role to play in saving historic Arena

March 30, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

The Arena Players: born 1953 as the dream of the visionary Samuel H. Wilson Jr.; died in 1996, the victim of neglect by the city of Baltimore.

That obituary is not a reality yet. But it might be if Baltimoreans refuse to support an integral part of their history and let the financially strapped Arena -- the oldest continuous black theater group in the country -- succumb to a deficit that now runs to $120,000.

But we can all do our part today by just driving up to the 800 block of McCulloh St. -- the home of the playhouse since 1969 -- and handing cash or a check out of your car window to an Arena member eagerly awaiting a contribution. Someone will be there between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

In a March 20 article on the Arena's troubles, Sun reporter Sandra Crockett wrote that the playhouse owes $60,000 in back mortgage payments to the Harbor Bank. Rodney Orange Jr., the manager and director of Arena, said that ticket sales have plummeted in the past five years. The result is that the playhouse's annual operating budget of $250,000 runs in the red.

But there's no need for Baltimore to lose this piece of history. Baltimoreans of all races should gladly contribute to the Arena Playhouse. It's as much a part of the city as Edgar Allan Poe's house, his grave in a church cemetery on Fayette Street, the Babe Ruth House and Museum and Fort McHenry. Can you imagine Baltimore without the Poe House, Babe Ruth's birthplace or Fort McHenry? Would you even want to?

The Arena's history is just as rich as any of the city's other tourist attractions. Trazana Beverly, who won a Tony award, was born in Baltimore and graduated from Western High School. She taught at the playhouse in the late 1960s.

In the late 1950s, renowned poet and writer Langston Hughes came and sat in the front row as the Arena Players performed his musical "Simply Heavenly." In 1967, Hughes died one week before the Arena Players performed his play "Tambourines to Glory."

Over the years, Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play," Pulitzer prize winner August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," Ntozake Shange's "For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" and "Eyes" -- a play based on the incomparable Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" -- have all graced the Arena stage.

The playhouse also has a Youtheatre for young people from 4 to 18 years old. They learn drama and act in plays. It sounds like an indispensable program for not only black youth, but youth of all races, doesn't it? That's why ending this deficit shouldn't be too hard. For a mere $2.40 a pop, all the Baltimore-area men who attended the Million Man March can end it.

Everyone I've talked to who attended the March has assured me of what an uplifting spiritual experience it was. So I'm issuing the estimated 50,000 Baltimore men who attended the march this challenge: Drive by the playhouse tomorrow and make your contribution. It'll help keep the much-needed Youtheatre in existence. And you'll be helping a theater company that was uplifting Baltimore's black community -- spiritually, artistically and in other ways -- at a time when many of you still had mommy's milk on your breath and years before many others of you were even born.

While you're at it, stop the car and go into the playhouse and buy a subscription for the rest of this year's plays. As Rodney Orange Jr. has indicated, the Arena needs not only donations but cash-paying patrons on a regular basis. Since we lined up in droves last December to spend millions of dollars on the revolting "Waiting To Exhale" movie, we can hand some money to the Arena Players.

To do less is to consign the Arena Players to the same fate that befell the Royal. Anybody remember the Royal? It was the famous theater on Pennsylvania Avenue that showed not only movies but had live stage shows as well. It is tempting to call it Baltimore's Apollo Theater, but it's probably more accurate to say the Apollo was Harlem's Royal.

The performers who played at the Royal included Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and his orchestra, James Brown and the Temptations, to mention only a few of hundreds. But performances weren't limited to blacks. As a boy I remember seeing some white guy pound out a rhythm and blues beat on a piano, kick out the seat from under him and continue playing and singing on his knees.

"Good grief," I mumbled to myself. "Who is this white guy?" It wasn't just any white guy. It was Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the few white performers who could play the Royal and not get booed off the stage, old-timers tell me.

Today, a football field stands where the Royal once stood. There's still time to save the Arena from a similar fate. Sam Wilson died in February of last year. Let's not allow the Arena Players to follow him.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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