Glad to be 50: Arena Players triumphs over its struggles

THEATER

September 19, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

When Andre De Shields was growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, black people who wanted to act and sing and dance were often looked down on by their community. In a segregated city in which black audiences weren't welcome at the major performing arts venues, he says, it smacked too much of a minstrel show, of shuffling and jiving for the white folk.

That's why the Arena Players was so important.

"It was a place where black people appearing before a black audience were living out my dream of one day being a performing artist," De Shields said in a telephone interview. "They were warriors, and the work they did was unprecedented and groundbreaking."

That dream will be honored during a weeklong celebration starting Sunday, as the Players begins its 50th season as the oldest continuously operated black community theater in the country.

Festivities from Sept. 22-28 will include a church service and brunch, an open-mike night, and a community reception at which visitors may tour the theater. A highlight will be Monday's black tie gala, at which De Shields, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his work in The Full Monty, will be the guest of honor.

In addition, the opening show of the 50th season will be William Saroyan's Hello Out There -- a revival of the first Players production in its initial season of 1953.

This birthday is even more special because the theater struggled long and hard for its existence. Arena Players was founded by Samuel Wilson as the theatrical equivalent of a jazz club. For decades, it had a vagabond existence, hopping from site to site, which made it difficult to establish an audience base.

The theater finally found a permanent home at 801 McCulloh St. in 1961, and bought the building eight years later. Mortgage payments and other debts almost did the troupe in; in 1996, the theater was on the verge of shutting its doors, endangered by a poor economic climate, the death of its founder and a $175,000 debt, of which $60,000 was owed to the bank.

In a way, it was endangered by its very success. For decades, Arena Playhouse was the only venue in town to see the seminal works about the black experience, from Ain't Misbehavin' to The Wiz to for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. In the late 1950s, the renowned playwright and poet Langston Hughes sat in the front row when the Players performed his musical, Simply Heaven.

By 1996, these works had infiltrated the mainstream, and similar pieces were being performed at Center Stage, Everyman Theatre and the Morris Mechanic Theatre.

And, the performers who had brightened the Arena Stage -- from Howard Rollins (who starred in the movie version of Ragtime) to Tony Award-winning actress Trezana Beverley (for colored girls) -- now had more choices of their own. Recent Arena alumni Traci Thoms appeared last year at Center Stage, and Eric Bates is performing in Hairspray.

"1996 was a bad, bad year," said Rodney Orange, managing director of the Players and the theater's only paid staff member.

Over time, the bills slowly got paid. The theater still carries a debt from season to season, but it is manageable.

Influential friends have helped, such as Charles Dutton, who did a benefit performance for the Players in which he performed classic roles from Shakespeare. Local businesses and citizens made generous donations. But mostly, the Players helped themselves:

They cut down on productions requiring expensive costumes and sets. They beefed up their lucrative children's theater program, which is run by Orange's mother, Catherine. They began renting out their building to sororities, fraternities and church groups. And they launched monthly jazz and comedy series that have been popular revenue-producers.

One day earlier this year, Orange looked up from the books and realized that the Players were going to make it. He was vastly gratified and relieved.

"I mean, you know, this is something special," he said.

The gala begins at 6 p.m. Monday at Martin's West at the Beltway and Security Blvd. Tickets cost $60 and must be bought in advance.

Hello Out There runs from Sept. 27 through Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $15 for most adults; $10 for students and seniors.

For more information about both events, call 410-728-6500.

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