When a dozen Morgan State University students launched a theater troupe called ArtsCentric nearly a decade ago, their goal went beyond creating performance opportunities for themselves. They wanted to do work that could make a difference to people.
The two goals come together this weekend with a production of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical "Next to Normal," a groundbreaking show about a woman whose battle with bipolar disorder threatens to tear apart her family.
"I don't believe it's ever been done onstage with black actors," said ArtsCentric's executive director, Cedric D. Lyles, who is also music director for the production. "But why couldn't it? It's about an American family dealing with American problems."
A report from the organization Mental Health America, cited by ArtsCentric in its marketing for the production, estimates that more than 2 million Americans have bipolar disorder.
The report also pointed out that most African-Americans with the condition go undiagnosed and untreated. This week, after dodging the issue for a couple of months, Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. acknowledged that he was being treated for bipolar disorder.
"With this production, we hope to shed light on the fact that mental illness affects all communities," Lyles said. "We have an opportunity here. We can be socially responsible. We can use our art to serve the community."
Brochures on mental health will be available in the theater lobby. And after the last performance, two clinical psychologists will participate in a discussion about issues raised by the musical.
In tackling a tough show, ArtsCentric is making one statement. In casting it with mostly African-American performers, it is making another.
"We know that a lot of musicals get boxed in," Lyles said. "People think there is only one way to do them, that certain roles can only be cast one way. We wanted to bring a different perspective to this work."
There may be a different sound, too.
"I love the score to this show," Lyle said. "It's brilliant. And I wouldn't change it. The core of the music is absolutely the same in our production. But the performers may add a little nuance, an extra breath or phrase. The audience won't hear it sung like this anywhere else."
Since its launch in 2003, ArtsCentric has presented various works in the area, including a production of the Elton John musical "Aida" in 2007. The company has been less active lately.
"People went on to pursue their own careers and dreams after college," said Sequina DuBose, a company member who handles marketing for the group. "But we didn't close down. We came back together recently and restructured the company as a for-profit LLC. We felt that was an easier way to get off the ground. We've invested in the company ourselves."
A recently concluded Kickstarter campaign raised $7,600 in 30 days, providing a good chunk of the $12,000 budget for "Next to Normal."
Although ArtsCentric does not yet have an official home — "Next to Normal" will be staged at a prep school in Owings Mills where Lyles teaches — the company is determined to create a clear identity in Baltimore's blossoming theater world.
"There is no reason why there shouldn't be more African-Americans playing roles in shows with universal messages," DuBose said. "But we don't want to brand ourselves as a black company. We view ourselves as innovative and edgy. Maybe we'll do 'The Wiz' someday with a completely Caucasian cast. We want to build trust with the audience — and then push them."
If you go
"Next to Normal" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday at Garrison Forest School, 300 Garrison Forest Road, Owings Mills. Tickets are $25, available at artscentric.net.