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Rodney Orange Jr., Arena Players managing director, dies

Rodney Orange Jr., managing director of the Arena Players who was credited with helping to save the theater company, died of heart disease April 22 at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The Westport resident was 58.

“Rodney was a go-getter,” said Donald Owens, a Baltimore actor and Arena Players’ artistic director. “He gave you his time and his suggestions. He was also an excellent communicator with people. He made connections to the politicians and the community at large.”

Born in Baltimore and raised on Allendale Road in Windsor Hills, he was the son of Rodney Orange Sr., a Bethlehem Steel worker who is a past president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, and Catherine Scott Orange, who headed the Baltimore City College fine arts department. He attended Windsor Hills Elementary and Garrison Middle schools, and was a 1979 Walbrook High School graduate.

Mr. Orange served in the Army and attended Morgan State University.

Arena Players, described on its website as the oldest continuously operated black community theater in the country, was on the verge of shutting its doors and had debts in the 1990s when Mr. Orange worked out strategies to put the troupe in a better financial condition.

"1996 was a bad, bad year, " he said in a 2012 Baltimore Sun article. "I [now] feel that the future is being secured.”

He explained that Arena Players' financial difficulties were linked to decreasing attendance. He worked to attract more sponsoring organizations and brought in other entertainment not related to the acting company’s plays and musical comedies. He assisted in setting up a concert for children, evenings of stand-up comedy and a benefit gospel choir concert. The theatrical company also received state grants and gifts from donors to overcome its debts.

As the theatrical troupe’s managing director, he also led two renovations of the playhouse at 801 McCulloh St.

"In the past there's been a perception that black people can't hold and maintain our own businesses and institutions. People are now saying this is not true, and this is a prime example,” Mr. Orange said. “This is one case of an institution where African American people realize they can't afford to let this happen."

His mother, Catherine Scott Orange, said her son was a natural at the theater. “He was energetic. He liked people and liked children. He was personable and was always trying to help a situation,” she said.

Mr. Orange introduced his son and daughter to theater. In 2006 they were each cast in the HBO show “The Wire.” His son, Rashad Orange of Baltimore, played Sherrod, a homeless child fending for himself with his mother addicted to drugs. Mr. Orange’s daughter Rakiya had a smaller role as a student named Charlene.

“My father and grandmother were in cahoots together to bring us — my brother and I — to the theater. It was a silent understanding that that was what we would be doing,” said his daughter, Rakiya Brown, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif.

“My father was playful by nature, but he knew when to be serious,” said his daughter. “He was a giver. He wanted the best for everybody.”

Mr. Orange liked to travel to Florida, Las Vegas and the Caribbean.

“My father was a picky eater,” his daughter said. “He would eat shrimp tempura sushi all the time. He also loved iced tea. I am sure it was sweetened.”

“He was super outgoing,” she also said. “His biggest thing was throwing shows and benefit parties. He loved hosting and putting on comedy shows at Arena Players. He recruited the talent, too.”

She recalled how he created a party theme — the guests were required to dress in a color he determined — and he would recruit a DJ from Baltimore, New Jersey or New York.

In addition to his mother, father, son and daughter, survivors include his wife, Tamika Orange; another daughter, Rashida Orange of Baltimore; two brothers, Ricky Orange and Tracey Orange, both of Baltimore; a sister, Chris Orange of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

Services were held May 3 at the Wylie Funeral Home.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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