One of Baltimore’s oldest theatre groups, Arena Players Inc., will join forces with one of the youngest, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, to present two works about remarkable African-Americans.
In February, the two companies will offer a rock opera double bill — “Determination of Azimuth,” about NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for space flights and overcame institutional racism (she was the subject of the 2016 film “Hidden Figures”); and “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing,” about the greatly influential blues singer-songwriter Robert Johnson, who died under suspicious circumstances at 27 in 1938.
The production will be staged as part of the 64th season at Arena Players, which bills itself as the country’s longest continually operating African-American theater company.
“It’s good when arts groups work together,” says Arena Players artistic director Donald Owens. “In Baltimore, that doesn’t happen much.”
The idea for the joint venture emerged after the 8-year-old Baltimore Rock Opera Society premiered these two pieces as part of a program of six shorts works in 2015.
“The goal of that ‘Rock Opera 6-Pack’ was to get as many different kinds of stories onstage as we could,” says BROS artistic director Aran Keating. “Two of the works were specifically about the African-American experience. Ever since, we’ve looked for opportunities to bring those two back.”
That opportunity got a boost from Baltimore playwright and director Lola B. Pierson, who directed “Determination of Azimuth” in 2015. She also admired “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing.”
Pierson sought out a grant to help fund a re-staging of both pieces. She received this summer a $5,000 Mayor’s Individual Artist Award through the Creative Baltimore Fund administered by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.
“Determination of Azimuth” has a text by NASA scientist Heather Graham and co-author Eric Church, a score by Andrew Bernstein. “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing” was created by Nairobi Collins, who also composed the music score with Alex Fine.
Keating describes “Determination of Azimuth” as “consciously experimental, with hypnotizing music.”
“Our show came out before ‘Hidden Figures,’ and we just think ours is better,” Keating says. “It’s a very different take on Katherine Johnson. It’s great to see the renewed interest in her, and we want to keep throwing light on that story.”
In “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing,” the goal, Keating says, is to “get inside the Robert Johnson mythos.” That mythos includes a long-standing legend involving Johnson and a Faustian pact with the devil.
The score to this work mixes blues, spirituals, garage rock and more.
BROS saw Arena Players as the perfect collaborator to bring both pieces back to the stage with new casts and some fresh perspectives.
“We had been looking for an opportunity to work with Arena Players,” Keating says. “They have established themselves in the community the way we hope to establish ourselves in the community. We immediately thought this was a home-run.”
BROS found Owens receptive.
“I saw one of their performances quite by accident,” Owens says. “I rather like them. This will be a totally different thing for us. But I think having a work about the ‘Hidden Figures’ story will be something that will draw people in. There is an audience for Robert Johnson, too, I think.”
Pierson sees potential benefits from the enterprise.
“These companies ar every different from each other,” she says. “BROS audiences have probably never set foot in Arena Players, and Arena Players audiences have probably never seen a BROS show. I think this can start some pretty interesting conversations.”