Playhouse deserves support as it marks 50th anniversary

October 05, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

GET READY, Baltimoreans, for yet another 50th birthday.

This time it's the Arena Players, the oldest African-American theater group in the country, which began its 50th season Sept. 27. The Arena celebrated by putting on two one-act plays, William Saroyan's Hello Out There and Alice Childress' Wine in the Wilderness. One-acts were all the Arena did its first year. The playhouse expanded to three-act plays the next year.

For five days before opening night, the Arena celebrated with a brunch, a black-tie gala, an open house and other activities to commemorate the golden anniversary.

Now, the hard work begins: supporting the theater and making it viable.

We can all start by patronizing the Arena, at 801 McCulloh St. In addition to providing the excellent theater Baltimore needs, the playhouse has done other good work in recent years.

In 1998, Arena Players featured the play Servant of the People, a drama that dared tell the complete and true story of the meteoric rise and sickening fall of the Black Panthers. Most playhouses would have steered clear of that one.

In 1996, the players played host to Operation Positive Role Model Talent Search, part of the Rev. Willie Ray's "Stop the Killing" campaign that sought to identify rappers who had more to offer in their music than misogynistic lyrics and gutter language.

That same year, rapper LL Cool J appeared at the Arena Players to give young people some much-needed advice on the values of education, something youngsters may also learn from the playhouse's Youtheater, where those ages 4 to 18 can learn how to act and produce plays.

Some fine actors have appeared in the Arena over the years, from Howard Rollins Jr. (from the movie Ragtime and the television series In the Heat of the Night) to Tony Award winner Trazana Beverly. I think a guy named Michael Kane is the best actor to ever grace the playhouse stage, but I'm unashamedly and unapologetically biased in that area.

Hello Out There and Wine in the Wilderness run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 20. With what Hollywood is producing for movie theaters these days, a playhouse sounds like a better bet.

After you've visited the Arena Players, you might want to head down to Fells Point to check out Parade at the Fells Point Corner Theatre on South Ann Street. Parade also runs through Oct. 20 and is a musical drama about the Leo Frank case in 1913 Atlanta.

Frank, a Jewish supervisor at a pencil factory, was accused of murdering a teen-age girl named Mary Phagan. Through the use of highly questionable and barely credible eyewitnesses, an ambitious district attorney succeeded in getting Frank convicted.

The evidence was so weak that Georgia Gov. James Slaton commuted Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment, but a lynch mob dragged Frank from jail one night and strung him up.

Not exactly the subject matter for a musical. At least, that's what I thought. I sat down convinced I was going to hate every minute of Parade but soon found myself engrossed in the play.

Matthew Bowerman and Claire Carberry are excellent as newlyweds Leo and Lucille Frank (according to the cast notes, Bowerman and Carberry will be real-life newlyweds soon), but the actor you want to see is Howard Turner III, truly phenomenal as Jim Conley, whom many regard as Phagan's real murderer.

Florida miscount

Muchos gracias to reader Russell W. Burton of New Freedom, Pa., whose mission is to assist a columnist who has spent way too much time getting in touch with his inner idiot.

"You gave kudos to the NAACP for fighting [for] the `millions' of eligible black voters incorrectly removed from the rolls in Florida. Surely you jest. According to the 2000 census data, about 2.3 million blacks live in Florida. Assuming that some of these are children and are not old enough to vote, you are in essence saying that no black was able to vote in Florida in 2000."

Good looking out, Burton. That phrase should have read thousands, not millions. Boy, do I need a nice cruise to the Bahamas right about now.

One last try

Once more unto the breach. The correct e-mail address for Desert Rose Productions, makers of the documentary film Black Confederates (and absolutely the last time it will appear in this column): producer_1@usa.net. And remember, the bold soul who made the film is named Stan Armstrong.

Happy e-mailing, compadres.

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