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Arena Players ready for next act

In 1953, nine African-Americans gathered in a Northwest Baltimore living room to discuss offering quality theater to the community.

Their goal seemed simple.

"We just wanted to do plays," said Ed Terry, the company's associate artistic director who first joined Arena Players Inc. shortly after arriving in Baltimore in 1961. "Everyone chipped in to make it work."

This goal became Arena Players Inc., which begins its 51st season Friday with the restaging of last year's hit "If My Heart Could Sing: A Night With Billie Holiday."

The troupe, housed in the 300-seat Arena Playhouse at 801 McCulloh St. in West Baltimore, is the nation's only continuously running black theater company founded by African-Americans. The nation's oldest black theater company, Karamu House in Cleveland, was founded by whites in 1915.

"It's all good that we have been around for 50 years, … but there's a constant struggle to maintain ourselves," Terry added. "By hook or crook, we've managed to hang in there."

Thus is the reality facing Arena Players -- remaining financially viable in a dramatically changed national arts landscape. But the company is no differerent from a number of arts organizations nationwide that have had to shut down or cancel seasons because of the inability to raise funds.

The situation is more acute, however, for African-American arts organizations -- many of which were founded by hobbyists lacking such business skills as management, bookkeeping, grant writing and fund raising.

These groups, building their subscription base on blacks, also face greater challenges from established, non-minority arts organizations, who once shunned them. And, in addition to cable television and movies, the troupes now are competing with another theatrical genre -- "urban circuit" plays that have been growing increasingly popular among African-Americans.

In addition, Arena Players must also work to uphold its founding goal as a community theater.

"A lot has changed for us in 50 years," said Rodney A. Orange Jr., Arena Players' managing director. " 'Community theater' doesn't mean the same thing. These changes didn't happen overnight. We've had to change how we do business, because now that's really what it is -- a business."

Former state Sen. Larry Young, a longtime Arena Players supporter, agreed.

"It was a hard reality," said Young, who now hosts a morning talk program on WOLB-AM. He attributed the company's financial stability to Orange, his mother, Catherine, and Edward Smith Jr., a lawyer and developer who is Arena Players' board chairman. "They came to appreciate what they must do to keep the doors open and continue to create a quality product."

'Community theater'

Fifty years ago, African-American arts organizations in Baltimore were few. Segregation left blacks with its primary entertainment venue, the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Nat King Cole, Ethel Waters, James Brown and the Supremes performed.

"There was a group of highly educated, middle-class blacks who were not only educated in theater, but they also knew the literature," Terry said. "They decided to form a theater group to entertertain their family and friends."

This group included such individuals as Henry G. Parks Jr., founder of Parks Sausage Co. But the driving force behind Arena Players was Sam Wilson, who died in 1996. The company's first production was "Hello Out There" by William Saroyan in 1953.

"At first, we had very small audiences, but Sam worked to get the word out -- and soon the black community started to support us, the churches, fraternities," said Terry, a former Arena Players' artistic director. "Eventually, audiences grew. We kept our expenses low; the actors and staff weren't paid and the props all came from somebody's house. We were community theater.

"We moved around in the early days too," he added. "We performed in churches, the YMCA, even Coppin State College. We would build sets on Friday after work in time for the 8 o'clock curtain and tear the whole thing down after Sunday's performances for classes on Monday morning. We offered complete seasons every year."

Premiering classics

Artistically, Arena Players flourished. It premiered such now-classic black works as "A Raisin in the Sun," "Purlie," "The Wiz" and the drama "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf." In the late 1950s, the playwright and poet Langston Hughes sat in the front row when Arena Players performed his musical, "Simply Heaven."

Its alumni include: Tony Award nominee Andre De Shields, who grew up in Baltimore; Howard Rollins, star of the movie "A Soldier's Story; Tony-winning actress Trezana Beverley, who starred in "for colored girls"; and Eric Bates , who currently appears on Broadway in "Hairspray."

"To be able to stay in continuous production for 50 years is a prestigious accomplishment," said Larry Leon Hamlin, producer and director of the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. The 14-year-old event recognized Arena Players last month.

"I look at Arena Players and say, "O.K., maybe we can create an institution,' " said Hamlin, whose North Carolina Black Repertory Company is 24 years old. "It takes a really great sense of financial management, long-term financial planning, because so many companies have fallen by the wayside."

In 1961, Arena Players settled on McCulloh Street, buying the building eight years later. Mortgage payments and other debts mounted, nearly causing the troupe's demise.

"The problem is the problem of growth," said William W. Cook, an English professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and vice president of the African Grove Institute of the Arts. The organization was founded in 1998 by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson to develop solutions to the financial problems facing black theater companies.

"In some cases, the growth is in the opposite direction," Cook said. "A theater company's growth may be too small to make it viable. That creates other problems: How do you build a subscriber list to sustain yourself?"

The test for Arena Players came from such mainstream theaters as Center Stage, Everyman Theatre and the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, which began to stage many African-American works.

"When blacks didn't have anywhere else to go, with Arena Players, money wasn't an issue," said Orange, who joined Arena Players 17 years ago. "When white companies started to understand that black people had money, they started opening up their doors, even though it was limited."

But 1996 would prove to be the Players' toughest year. The company nearly closed down -- endangered by a sluggish economy, Samuel Wilson's death and a $175,000 debt. About $60,000 was owed to a bank and $28,000 was owed to Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. Arena Players almost had its electricity cut off.

"We just couldn't get people in the seats," Orange said.

Arena Players turned, again, to the community. Young "made a call" to BGE and helped other black business leaders -- as well as Players' Tony-winning alumnus Charles S. Dutton -- raise money.

Orange also flexed his managerial muscle. He limited productions that required expensive costumes and sets. He enhanced its internationally renowned children's theater program, run for 27 years by his mother, Catherine. He began renting out the Arena Playhouse building to community groups and inaugurated a monthly jazz and comedy series, steps that have helped bring in revenue.

"It was dark in the theater, but it was not dark to the community," Young said.

The debt has been cleared -- said Orange, the Players' only paid staffer -- and this season's budget totals $110,000. The only other performers to be paid are the musicians in "If My Heart Could Sing" -- and that does not include its star, Paulette Pace -- and "Bits of Broadway," to be performed later in the season.

"There's upkeep, supplies," Orange said, noting that some portions of Arena Playhouse are at least 50 years old and in need of renovation.

Economic challenges

Despite much artistic success, many storied African-American theater companies have collapsed over the years because of economic problems.

The Negro Ensemble Company, founded in 1967 in New York, closed in the mid-1990s. Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, which received a Tony Award for best regional theater in 1999, canceled its season the next year, citing $2 million in debt. Crossroads, the only African-American theater to win a regional Tony, now is in an alliance with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

"It's been nip-and-tuck trying to keep the companies that present primarily black theater from going under," said Marvin Sims, head of the performance curriculum of Virginia Commonwealth University's theater department in Richmond and president of the Black Theatre Network in New York. "It's the case of still being last in line and still trying to get some of the money that's left after the established arts groups get their funding."

There's the threat of "urban circuit" plays, too. These touring comedy and musical plays, which began in the late 1980s, generally are built around a big-named star, with simplistic plots but plenty of emotion and seek to appeal to the broadest African-American audiences.

These plays -- including the "Beauty Shop" series "Mama, I Wanna Sing" and "Medea's Family Reunion" – have played to sold-out houses, usually at ticket prices of at least $25 each, bringing in as much as $600,000 a week in some cities.

In Baltimore, several of these musicals have played at the Lyric Opera House, where "If These Hips Could Talk," starring Billy Dee Williams, begins a six-day run on Tuesday.

These challenges are not insurmountable, said Cook of the African Grove Institute. "This does not mean death or tradegy," he said. "You need to adapt your program to these special circumstances."

This is where the institute steps in, with education and support.

"There's the assumption in the African-American community that business skills are something you get from osmosis," Cook said. "We, as a people who have been locked out of business participation for a long time, have not been exposed to other kinds of thinking."

But the institute also must undo another, more serious, way of thinking within the African-American community itself, he added.

"We can develop a mind-set that being marginal is being good -- that begging from day to day is not authentic blackness," Cook said. "Most people will think 'that's not black.' I disagree with that. They think that is normal, but it is not normal … it's failure."

Investing in the arts

As for Arena Players, the company is preparing for its season opener. "If My Heart Could Sing" focuses on Billie Holiday's return visit to an old stomping ground, Café' Onyx on Pennsylvania Avenue. Besides "Bits of Broadway," other productions include "Come Back, Little Sheba" by William Inge and "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" by John Henry Redwood.

The company's support base also has broadened, with such companies and foundations now on board as the William G. Baker Memorial Fund, The Family League – along with WMAR-TV, Radio One Inc., the Baltimore Theatre Alliance and the Maryland State Arts Council.

"Arena Players sees what the community needs and then serves that need," said Dianne Hood, theater and dance program officer at the Maryland State Arts Council. "The mission of the MSAC is to encourage and invest in the advancement of the arts for the people of our state.

"The Arena Players has for many years, and continues to be, a valued component in this vibrant arts community," she said.

Despite these changes, Orange said, Arena Players remains, still, fundamentally the same.

"We're still a 'community theater,' in spite of it all," he said. "Now, we have a more professional staff in place to move us forward. We have a five-year plan and development efforts under way to achieve it.

"Luckily, we realized, before it was too late, that we are now running our community theater in a new reality."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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