By Tabb Bishop and Larry Young
Special to the AFRO
Baltimore natives celebrate the accomplished entertainers who lived in their city, like Oprah Winfrey, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Jada Pickett Smith, and Charles Dutton. In a similar way, many places also made history, such as The Royal Theater, The Met, The Regent, and even Pennsylvania Avenue, which is now registered as a Black Arts and Entertainment District. Such lists put a glaring spotlight on Baltimore as a national landmark for Black arts, culture and entertainment. Modest in its beginnings, mighty in its mission, and major in its impact, the Arena Players Theater rightfully belongs in the city’s pantheon of legendary names that have made our community richer.
And it is easy to see why this exceptional playhouse remains the oldest continuously operating African-American community theater in the United States.
Having opened for its 66th season this past September, Arena Players brings the sights, sounds and stories of Black theater to audiences looking for what can not be found on downtown stages. All of our shows are written, produced, directed, and acted by our own in a theater that we own. A 300 seat facility sitting just east of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in the Seton Hill neighborhood, the theater is a hub for minority performing arts community members to share their talents.
“A Raisin in the Sun,” “Pearlie,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “God’s Trombones” are just a few of the theatrical classics featuring homegrown talent. Over the decades, this small in size, but big in heart theater has exposed audiences to some of the nation’s best plays, but at a fraction of the cost found elsewhere. In addition, contemporary productions grace the Arena Players stage giving theater fans a range of options.
Many shows and actors make their debuts at Arena Players, where artists hope their careers will take off, perhaps even landing them on a Broadway stage. One such dream came true for 2019 Tony Award winner Andre De Shields, a Baltimore son who was trained at the theater.
“De Shields lit up the theater like a brilliant star during his recent visit with us,” said Larry Young, chair of the Arena Players Board of Directors and award-winning talk radio host. “We could sense his fond memories and great pride when we made him the recipient of the inaugural Arena Players’ ‘Ambassador of the Theater Award’,” he added.
Arena Players also serves as a community center where other activities take place. Promoters occasionally bring comedians and other shows to the theater. The Baltimore City Branch NAACP holds meetings there, and beginning this fall the theater will be home for an exciting STEM education after school program.
What began in 1953 with Arena Players founder Sam Wilson’s passion to start a community theater in a row house has developed into a showcase all Baltimoreans can embrace. “After moves from various locations, the theater finally settled at its current address during the tenure of former Mayor Donald Schaffer, whose help should not go unmentioned,” said Carl Stokes, a member of the board and former City Councilman shared.
To bring new conveniences and comfort to the theater’s present location at 801 McCullough Street, building renovations have been scheduled. In 2019 the theater began receiving state capital project support, and local funds are expected as well. Upgraded seats, and audio and lighting systems along with other renovations will be completed in 2020.
In the meantime, the 2019-2020 season schedule includes a variety of plays capable of satisfying all types of theatergoers. “You name it, and we have it for Black theater lovers,” expressed Donald Owens, the Artistic Director of Arena Players. “From gospels for the church community, to comedies for people who love to laugh, to drama for more serious types, and musicals for fans of that genre, we really do have quality shows for everyone,” he continued.
Supporting Black art forms is important. It helps bring people together, strengthen communities, and celebrate our achievements. Baltimoreans are fortunate to have Arena Players, which has not only lasted a long time, but has grown.
Thanks to the presence of this accessible historic institution, anyone who wants a chance to enjoy Black theater with a grassroots mission need look no further. To make sure you see some of Baltimore’s best in Black performances, visit Arena Players’ website (www.arenaplayersinc.com) to purchase your tickets.