Theater in the red Arena Players: Dogged by financial woes, pioneering theater group struggles to survive.

August 30, 1996

BALTIMORE'S ARENA PLAYERS has often faced hard times. When the late Samuel H. Wilson Jr. started the company 43 years ago, he recalled that so few people came to the first performance "we had more people on stage than in the audience, but we just kept on going, not thinking too much about the limits of what we could do."

A year after Mr. Wilson's death at 73, the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater is struggling for survival. Its money woes are so acute that it has been forced to reduce its coming season from seven plays to four.

When Arena Players was formed, it was the first integrated theater company in Baltimore. Its first performances were held at Coppin State College. Then came the move to a former church and casket warehouse, which eventually was acquired by the theater and completely reconfigured into a 314-seat theater.

"We knew that as blacks we didn't have any future in professional theater," Mr. Wilson once said. "Arena was a good outlet for us."

Arena Players' major contribution has been in encouraging and staging works of black playwrights, starring black actors. Particularly valuable in developing local talent has been its long partnership with WMAR-TV in sponsoring an annual drama competition, which has given winners a chance to have their work produced and aired on television.

This record of achievement is now threatened. Although Friends of the Arena Players has raised $60,000 in recent months, an overdue mortgage payment was missed Aug. 16 because there simply was not enough money. A $25-a-person fund-raiser has now been scheduled for Sept. 7 at 7: 30 p.m. in the theater, 801 McCulloh Street. Instead of regular actors, all the entertaining will be done by Maryland politicians. This is a good cause that merits support.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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