ArtsCentric is a "color-conscious" theater troupe based at Motor House. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
North Avenue received an extra jolt last year when the theater troupe ArtsCentric started to make its home base in the already humming arts hub Motor House and delivered a big, buoyant production of "Dreamgirls."
The dynamic beat from ArtsCentric, a self-described
"color-conscious" company that focuses mostly on musicals, has continued since. Things kicked into high gear this summer, with ambitious, back-to-back stagings of "Chicago," which wrapped up earlier this month, and "Memphis," which opens Friday.
ArtsCentric brings a distinctive style and statement to Baltimore's theater scene. This summer marks five years since the company, launched in 2003 by Morgan State University students, reorganized and intensified its commitment to providing opportunities for actors of color and re-imagining established theater works in the process.
Staging "Chicago," a cynical tale of murder and media exploitation set to a jazzy score, with an all-African American cast demonstrated ArtsCentric's approach in particularly telling fashion.
"Think what it meant, in today's climate, to have six black women representing murderesses onstage," says Cedric D. Lyles, the company's managing director and resident music director, "or an actor of color singing 'Mr. Cellophane.'" (That song, ordinarily sung by a white character, describes people who "look right through me, walk right by me and never know I'm there.")
The current focus on "Memphis," about a white radio DJ daring to play black music in the 1950s, and the various racial and personal issues that ensue, also fits neatly into the ArtsCentric aesthetic.
"There are so many parallels today," says Lyles, whose day job is performing arts teacher and director at the Barrie School in Silver Spring. "I hope the show will have an impact, that people will have conversations because of it."
The company's "color-conscious" description, in an age when many theater troupes proclaim colorblind casting, is a conversation-starter, too.
"The idea of consciousness is being aware, not ignoring the fact that our skin tone is different, our heritage is different," Lyles says. "We own the fact that we're a black company. We don't back away from that because we're African-American people. That's where our roots are. But that's not where we stop."
ArtsCentirc artistic director Kevin S. McAllister, who is also a busy actor and director with other companies around the region, adds the issue of theatrical viability to the discussion.
"Every show doesn't work for colorblind casting," he says. "It's easily distracting to see something that doesn't fit. We don't want to diminish the storytelling just to put someone of color in a role. We make sure that everything we do has a purpose. It's not just, oh, let's do a black production of 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.'"
McAllister, Lyles and soprano Sequina DuBose were the principal movers behind ArtsCentric at Morgan State. In their early 20s then, they're in their mid-30s now, and the theater troupe has grown as they have.
"We were music majors and we wanted to create create opportunities for ourselves," Lyles says. "And we felt we needed to see more people of color on the stage."
Adds McAllister: "We thought of ArtsCentric as a resume-builder for ourselves at first, then realized we needed to help other people as well. Baltimore has so many amazing artists who haven't gotten to the next step."
The ensemble offered occasional stagings, including the Elton John musical "Aida" in 2007, but there were also several extended periods of hiatus, when the organizers pursued their "own careers and dreams after college," says DuBose, who gave a stellar turn in "Dreamgirls" last year.
"The company's real start came in 2012," says Lyles.
That's when the founders, investing their own money, brought ArtsCentric back in a more solidly structured way. That they had to deal with a bit of nomadism did not deter them.
For a time, they put down stakes at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, using a couple of campus venues. The lineup there included "Next to Normal" and a searing interpretation of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf."
The action then shifted to a dingy spot near Canton (where Toby's Dinner Theatre used to have a Baltimore location) for such shows as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Color Purple."
But in 2016, Motor House, a Station North facility that holds offices, artist studios and a 115-seat performance space, provided ArtsCentric with a well-equipped base of operations, which they have been using steadily.
"It's great to have them at Motor House," says Jeannie L. Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, a tenant in the building. "There's a lot of talent going on there. It's terrific that they are hiring actors of color and performing really interesting works."
The company makes room on its stage for the inexperienced as well as the seasoned. (Performers receive stipends; administrative staff is unpaid.)
"A lot of the actors we find are cultivated," Lyles says. "Others are are diamonds in the rough, or just need a little shining."
Shayla Lowe experienced some of that shining from her fellow Morgan State alumni Lyles and McAllister when she began performing with the company in 2012.
"While they were following their dream, I was getting married and having kids," Lowe says, "so I was basically a re-emerging performer when I started with them. I knew this would be an opportunity to learn. It is one of the most educational places I've worked. We were friends, but they told me like it was, and I had to take the criticism like anyone else."
Another veteran with the group, Kelli Blackwell, echoes those praises.
"I was looking for a company to be a part of, specifically an African-American company," Blackwell says. "As African-American actors we're very aware of the shows we're right for. It's harder for us to get in 'The Wizard of Oz' versus 'The Wiz.' I felt these people had something special and I wanted to be around them."
Blackwell, a powerhouse vocalist featured in "Sincerely, Me," a musical revue ArtsCentric put together a few years ago, now serves as the company's director of artistic programming and has a hand in the casting.
"We always put African-American actors in one of the leading roles," she says. "We want to give them that opportunity."
Blackwell, whose day jobs include working at the box office at Baltimore Center Stage, keeps an eye on pieces that might not usually be open to actors of color elsewhere.
"I don't want to be known as the theater where they're going to take a white play and make it black," Blackwell says. "But why can't we do 'Chicago'? We don't ever want to say we can't do something because audiences haven't seen it done that way before."
The public has been responding to ArtsCentric and its work; several performances of "Chicago" sold out.
"I was surprised how many people of other cultures came to see it," McAllister says. "Forty percent of the audience was brand new to us, and 10 to 15 percent of them bought tickets to 'Memphis.'"
Another vote of confidence can be seen in the company's funding. Grants from the T. Rowe Price Foundation and William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund have helped support ArtsCentric's budget, currently around $125,000 — "And no deficit," Lyles says.
The success doesn't surprise Toby Orenstein, artistic director and owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre, where McAllister is directing a production of "Dreamgirls" opening later this month with a cast that includes DuBose.
"I knew them when they were students at Morgan, and I could see their potential then," Orenstein says. "I think it's great that they have been able to introduce another theater company in Baltimore."
As for ArtsCentric's future, the musical "Sister Act" is on the schedule for December. At some point, the company, which has occasionally turned to plays instead of musicals, may do more of them.
Down the road, a capital campaign might be undertaken with an aim toward finding a larger theater ("We're already bursting out of Motor House," Blackwell says.)
McAllister sees the company as a place where he and his colleagues can acknowledge "our culture as Americans, as African-Americans and as theater artists."
"We love connecting to the community. It's definitely changing us, giving us skill sets we didn't have," he says. "I want ArtsCentric to be a strong, positive choice for people. And I want them to ask more of us."
If you go
ArtsCentric's production of "Memphis" runs through Sept. 3 at Motor House, 120 W. North Ave. Tickets are $26. Call 410-205-5130, or go to artscentric.net.