Samuel H. Wilson Jr., who as founder and artistic director of Arena Players nurtured black theater in Baltimore for more than four decades, died yesterday at Bon Secours Hospital, where he was being treated for pneumonia. He was 73.
The nonprofit West Baltimore group he helped found in 1953 to provide a venue for black actors and audiences at the height of post-World War II segregation is the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater.
Under his direction, Arena Players grew from a company that produced only one-act plays in the loft of a building at Coppin State College to one with a six-play season and a thriving youth program housed in a modern, 314-seat theater. It became an institution to generations of Baltimoreans, providing them with the chance to see some of the finest contemporary American dramas, black and white, as well as more experimental works with African-American themes.
Among those associated with the theater was Baltimore-born and Tony Award-winning actress Trazana Beverley, who taught there in the late 1960s.
In recognition of his efforts, Mr. Wilson, a longtime faculty member at Coppin State, was one of a dozen black theater pioneers honored in 1979 with a Golden Circle Award at New York's Lincoln Center.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called Mr. Wilson a "legend" yesterday and said the city and its arts community have "lost a great friend."
"He inspired generations of young actors and actresses and raised the quality of the theater in the community through his personality and his artistic excellence," the mayor said through his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman.
Jim Backas, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, summed up Mr. Wilson and his theater company this way: "A very important company, a very important theater, a very important man. We'll all miss him."
Hope Quackenbush, former managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, said: "He was a wonderful, wonderful man, dedicated to the theater, and a teacher and a man with a vision, and he held to it with such integrity."
Arena Players canceled yesterday's matinee and evening performances of "Ghost Stories of the Blacksmith Curse," a contemporary play about African-American history, in memory of Wilson.
Those who worked with Mr. Wilson over the years were struck by his gentility of manner and love of theater.
"He just had to see a piece of work go on stage," said Rodney A. Orange Jr., the theater's managing director.
Indeed, despite suffering two strokes last year, Mr. Wilson directed his final play at the theater last month -- a production of "God's Trombones," James Weldon Johnson's 1920s tribute to black preachers.
He died two weeks before the presentation of one of Arena Players' most visible efforts -- the broadcast of the winning teleplay in the annual black playwrights' competition co-sponsored with WMAR-TV (Channel 2).
Mr. Wilson's guiding philosophy was perhaps best summed up in a 1987 interview he gave on the occasion of Arena Players' 35th anniversary.
"I don't believe anyone is supposed to leave this earth having held on to his or her talent," he said. "You've got to share it. You've got to hand it to somebody else."
Born in Baltimore in 1921, Mr. Wilson was the oldest of four children. His mother was a domestic worker; his father, a sporting goods clerk and janitor.
His interest in the theater began as a child, when he went to see plays such as "Death Takes A Holiday" performed by the Negro " Little Theater, which closed after World War II.
"That's when I was really bitten by the bug," he said once.
He graduated in 1939 from Frederick Douglass Senior High, where he showed an interest not only in theater but also in the personal history of black artists. He served in the Army from 1943 to 1946, where as a sergeant in Special Services he taught adult basic education at Fort Meade while taking undergraduate classes at Coppin State.
Armed with a bachelor's degree in education, he began teaching elementary school in the city in 1946. He spent his summers doing graduate work at Boston University, studying acting and play production, and receiving a master's degree in literature in 1953.
That year, Mr. Wilson and a small group of fellow theater-lovers founded Arena Players.
"We knew that as blacks we didn't have any future in professional theater," he later said. "Arena was a good outlet for us."
The group's first performance was William Saroyan's "Hello Out There." It also put on plays by Edward Albee and Arthur Miller, as well as Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes. In the late 1950s, Mr. Hughes surprised the group by attending its performance of his musical "Simply Heavenly." "He came and sat in the first row and enjoyed it as if he'd seen it for the first time," Mr. Wilson would recall.
In the late 1960s, Arena Players began performing more plays by black playwrights. But Mr. Wilson refused to put on works simply because of the race of the writer. "You can't just say anything written by a black writer has to be put on," he said. "It has to have some basic structure."
In 1969, the group purchased its current facility on McCulloh Street, a building once used by a neighborhood undertaker to store caskets. Renovations took seven years.
Two years after the purchase, Mr. Wilson ended his career with city schools and began teaching in the English department at Coppin State, retiring last September.
Catherine B. Orange took classes in African-American literature and drama from him in the early 1970s. "His manner made people want to learn. He had an excitement about what he taught," recalled Ms. Orange, who runs Arena Players' Youtheatre program.
He brought the same spirit to his work as a theater director.
"He was very particular about the words and the language and the poetry," said James A. Brown, who acted in and provided technical support for several shows Mr. Wilson directed. "He wanted all of the actors in his plays to research their characters and develop what he called 'another voice.' "
Mr. Wilson was married twice, to the former Anna Hall, who died in 1990, and to Patricia Walker Wilson. Both marriages ended in divorce.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
He is survived by a son, Samuel H. Wilson III, and a brother, Everett L. Wilson, both of Baltimore; a grandson, Stephen J. Lee of Cleveland; and five nieces and nephews.
The family suggests that memorial contributions be made to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 3121 Walbrook Ave., Baltimore 21216, or to the Samuel H. Wilson Jr. Endowment Fund at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., Baltimore 21201.