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Baltimore’s ArtsCentric ‘color conscious’ theater troupe comes of age with triumphant ‘Dreamgirls’ at Center Stage

ArtsCentric, Baltimore’s self-described “color conscious” theater troupe, is finally taking its place in the spotlight.

Theater insiders have long been familiar with this small but stellar company founded in 2003 by three Morgan State University graduates. It’s a company that often conjured up stage magic on a pocket-change budget, a company dedicated to nurturing local talent.

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But it wasn’t until this month, when its lush, explosive production of “Dreamgirls” was booked into Baltimore Center Stage that ArtsCentric finally was introduced to the larger audience its supporters say it deserves.

Theater lovers who packed the 541-seat Pearlstone Theater saw a high-voltage production of the 1981 musical inspired by Diana Ross and the Supremes that can hold its own against the the touring Broadway musicals at the Hippodrome Theatre just one mile south. But unlike the performers in the national tours, about half of the “Dreamgirls” cast was made up of relatively inexperienced actors and singers recruited from Baltimore college and church choirs.

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Ticket buyers don’t seem to have noticed; though “Dreamgirls” originally had been scheduled to close Dec. 12, the run was extended for an additional week in response to audience interest — a phenomenon that’s become rare since the pandemic.

“ArtsCentric is a homegrown company that is reclaiming the musical theater canon for Black performers, and that is a mission that shoots straight to my heart,” said Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director of Center Stage, which co-sponsored the production, providing the use of the larger company’s box office, marketing and technical systems.

“It is a company run by professionals with formidable Broadway credentials, and the voices on our stage are world-class. My jaw sort of hangs open in awe at what they are reaching for,” Ybarra said. “I couldn’t wait to collaborate with them.”

The troupe was founded 18 years ago by former Morgan State students Kevin McAllister, Cedric D. Lyles and Sequina DuBose to create opportunities to perform in the musicals they loved. Hit shows like “Chicago,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Annie” had something to say about the Black experience, they thought, though those nuances often went unnoticed in traditional productions cast with white actors.

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“The history of America is entrenched in the music and stories and trauma of people of color,” said McAllister, who directed “Dreamgirls.”

“Pop art forms that have become the basis of musical theater are rooted in African American art forms from jazz to syncopation to rock ’n’ roll to the blues,” he said. “We’re the people living these stories, and we’re tired of being behind the scenes. We decided it was time we came to the forefront.”

The three founders’ bold experiment was almost too successful. After the first few years, their careers took off individually, resulting in long gaps between productions.

ArtsCentric co-founder Kevin S. McAllister (center left) performs in Roundabout Theatre Company's 'Caroline, or Change.'
ArtsCentric co-founder Kevin S. McAllister (center left) performs in Roundabout Theatre Company's 'Caroline, or Change.' (Joan Marcus)

Now, McAllister is performing on Broadway in a revival of the acclaimed 2003 musical, “Caroline, or Change.” DuBose is rehearsing the leading role of Donna Elvira for Opera Carolina’s upcoming production of ”Don Giovanni.” And Lyles recently took a job as director of artistic studies at a prestigious performing arts high school in Massachusetts.

But the three never abandoned their original dream.

“No matter what’s going on and no matter where we are, we still meet every Monday night at 8 p.m. by Zoom to talk about the company,” McAllister said. “I don’t think any of us ever imagined giving ArtsCentric up.”

In 2012, the company reorganized with the mission of passing on the practical tools the founders acquired during its early productions to a new generation. Raw talent is available in abundance in Baltimore, McAllister said, but not necessarily “the refined skill set people need to succeed.”

“As people of color, our education hasn’t focused on musical theater training,” he said. “A lot of people who joined our troupe had no idea how to put together a performing resume or what having the right headshot could do for them.”

In addition to honing the performers’ acting and singing skills by mounting four or five productions annually, ArtsCentric holds workshops specifically focused on career development. The company also mounts a three-week intensive summer camp for students.

ArtsCentric, a “color conscious” local troupe founded in 2003 by three Morgan State University grads, is coming of age and establishing itself as a force on the local performing arts scene. The troupe is currently in the midst of a wildly successful run of the musical “Dreamgirls” being presented at Baltimore Center Stage.
ArtsCentric, a “color conscious” local troupe founded in 2003 by three Morgan State University grads, is coming of age and establishing itself as a force on the local performing arts scene. The troupe is currently in the midst of a wildly successful run of the musical “Dreamgirls” being presented at Baltimore Center Stage. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

McAllister said that a core group of eight company members is constantly on the lookout for untapped talent.

“We find people on Instagram and in church,” he said. “We reach out to colleges and attend open mic and karaoke nights.”

By now ArtsCentric has a roster of experienced performers to draw upon, performers who got their start with the company and subsequently began populating the stages of such prestigious local companies as the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in northern Virginia, the Olney Theatre Center and Everyman Theatre.

But roughly half the roles in each production are intentionally set aside for inexperienced actors and singers, McAllister said.

“I would never put any show on stage that I’m not proud of,” he said. “But our primary mission is educational.”

Malshauna Hamm, 31, is among the cast of “Dreamgirls” making her Center Stage debut. Three years ago, Hamm was singing in Concord Baptist Church’s choir when Lyles, one of ArtsCentric’s founders and at that time, the church’s minister of music, asked her to audition for an upcoming production of “The Wiz.”

“I hadn’t performed in plays except for my church and in grade school,” Hamm said. “Even though I’ve been singing all my life, I always had stage fright. I would shake uncontrollably every time I began a song.”

But Lyles persisted. Hamm auditioned and landed the role of Auntie Em.

Now a confident young performer, Hamm has begun auditioning for other local companies. She’s even begun to think about turning pro.

“Being on stage is the most indescribable feeling,” Hamm said. “It’s very liberating. Now that I have learned to be more confident of my gift and more intentional, my fear has gone away. Instead of nervousness, I feel passion and energy.”

The founders were thrilled with their company’s work onstage. But offstage, they have been hampered by problems that typically beset smaller arts organizations. The troupe’s annual budget for 2019 was a modest $265,000. (In comparison, Center Stage’s budget was about $9 million.)

Though productions were consistently well-reviewed, many major funders had never heard of the group. McAllister dreams of being able to afford to hire even one full-time employee. Performers are paid just a token stipend. Most shows are staged in a 99-seat theater in the Remington neighborhood, with a total audience size per production of between 1,000 and 1,500.

In contrast, more than 4,000 audience members attended the first weeks of “Dreamgirls” performances at Center Stage.

“We’re ready to move to the next level,” McAllister said, “but we keep hitting the glass ceiling”.

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Though the collaboration with Center Stage is for just one production, it has the potential to be a game-changer — for both organizations.

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Nationwide, patrons have been slow to return to theaters and concert halls during the pandemic. When Ybarra sees the seats of her largest theater fill up with new faces, it lifts her heart.

“Our audiences do not necessarily overlap,” she said. “I have heard plenty of Baltimore Center Stage regulars say ‘I’m so happy to know about ArtsCentric, and so many ArtsCentric regulars [say] this is our first time at Center Stage.”

And for McAllister, this production of “Dreamgirls” was a chance to show off his troupe to all of Maryland.

“We know that we’re worthy of being supported,” he said. “We know that we’re making a positive change in this city. We are prepared to defy expectations.”

If you go

“Dreamgirls” runs through Sunday at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets cost $45. For details, call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.

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