A Youthful 'Wire' Act

Rashad Orange leaps from theater to playing a student in the coming season of the HBO show. His sister Rakiya gets into the drama, too.

March 29, 2006|By ERICKA BLOUNT DANOIS | ERICKA BLOUNT DANOIS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

About 10 years ago, Rashad Orange dazzled the audience as a winged monkey in Baltimore's Arena Playhouse production of The Wiz. His 6-year-old sister, Rakiya, who doubled as the yellow brick road and a dancer, captured the audience's imagination, as well.

The siblings, now teenagers, are still acting in the youth theater with the Arena Players. But now they are taking their talents to a national audience as stars in the fourth season of HBO's The Wire, set to air this summer.

The Wire, set in Baltimore, will shift gears in its new season, when the show follows students in a dysfunctional public school system.

Rashad, 15, plays one of the main characters, Sherrod, a homeless youth fending for himself by living in boxes. Rakiya, 16, plays a smaller role as Charlene, one of many students in this year's production.

"Rashad is a natural on stage; he's talented," says Robert Chew, a drama teacher at Arena Players who plays Proposition Joe Stewart on The Wire. "Rakiya was always the brains, but now she is right on his tail."

Chew recommended Rashad and Rakiya, among other actors at the theater group, for the cable television series.

Studio executives were so impressed with Rakiya's audition that they created a small role for her. Ed Burns, co-writer and producer, says Rashad captures certain nuances of his character -- something he believes comes from a background in theater and resulted in his "landing a substantial role."

Andre Royo, who plays the junkie Bubbles on The Wire, says Rashad brings discipline to his character.

"I think it shows in his voice," Royo says. "He has a certain pace and a certain presence that you pretty much get from theater work."

Rashad studied homeless people at the Inner Harbor to get a sense of his character.

"I asked them why they are homeless, what they went through," Rashad says about the experience. "I understood the reality of being homeless."

Though he is thrilled about the opportunity with The Wire, his heart belongs to the theater.

"Theater is fun because once you're out there, there's no `stop, cut, let's start over.' If you mess up, you're on your own," he says.

Arena Playhouse in West Baltimore has a history of churning out seasoned actors, such as Howard Rollins, Charles Dutton and budding stars like Tiffani Barbour, who is touring with the play Mamma Mia, and Tracie Thomas, who stars in the movie Rent.

But for the Orange siblings, the theater is rooted in their family history.

Their grandmother, Catherine Orange, introduced them to the stage. They absorbed the craft acting in such plays as The Wiz.

Their father, Rodney Orange Jr., is the managing director of the Arena Players.

"When he was little, Rashad, being a boy, wanted to play sports," says Catherine Orange, who is the Playhouse director. "But I said, `Oh, no! You're coming to the playhouse with me!'"

Since 1996, both children, along with their youngest sister, 13-year-old Rashida Orange, also an actor in the theater group, have lived with their father and grandmother in West Baltimore.

Catherine Orange welcomes Rakiya and Rashad's preference to being in front of the camera and onstage rather than behind the scenes.

"I think they both could have done a lot of other things," says the 26-year veteran of the theater. Catherine Orange also runs the fine arts department at City College in Northeast Baltimore, which Rakiya and Rashad attend. "But because they were always with me, they were coming to the playhouse and watching and learning."

Offstage, Rashad and Rakiya are learning real-life lessons about balancing time and forces vying for their talents. Rashad, who has a B average in his sophomore year, was juggling his time between the Arena Players, The Wire and basketball for a while before he reluctantly dropped basketball.

Rakiya is pulling a juggling act, as well, remaining on the honor roll while taking all Advanced Placement courses, and dancing, acting and writing for the Arena Playhouse.

In the theater realm, "I get more out of performing because you can connect with people more," says Rakiya.

"I fell in love with it as soon as I got into it," says Rashad. "Your first show, you're like, `Oh, my God, I am in front of all of these people ... and they are loving me!' So I figured, why not keep going?"

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