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Oldest African-American community theater is out with a new show

Posted at 5:30 PM, Feb 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-19 17:14:30-05

It's been called a creative fountain, a spring for talent. Arena Players is in the heart of Baltimore with a history as deep as its roster of famous writers, actors, and Broadway performers.

“The Arena Players, 1953,” said Donald Owens, artistic director for Arena Players, Inc.

The Arena Players is the oldest continuously operating African-American community theater. The group started out of a passion for performing.

“They had this creative outflow and there was nowhere they could do it. The theaters then were very segregated and the only way you could get a stage role is if you were playing a butler or servant,” Owens said, 

But at this theater, they could be any person they wanted and they touched every aspect of the performance - lighting, set design, costumes, marketing and selling tickets. It was a community effort as it remains today, which is a message Owens shares with the audience before every big show.

“It's your institution, you cannot expect someone else to save it. You cannot expect someone else to preserve it. And it's your responsibility to not ever have to say remember when,” Owens said.

Their latest work of art promises to be an epic night of entertainment. Constellations & Crossroads is two shows, 90 minutes, and a collaboration with another group.

“The Baltimore Rock Opera Society, we call them BROS,” said Owens.

Rehearsals are well underway for the two rock operas. Lola Pierson is directing the “Determination of Azimuth.”

“It's a play chronicling the life of Katherine Johnson who was one of the first black female astrophysicists working for NASA,” said Pierson.

The play came before the blockbuster movie “Hidden Figures.”

“And it's her story told through her most famous paper which is the Determination of Azimuth, so it's her story told through equations and numbers and mathematical ideas that she was the first woman to come up with and write down,” Pierson said.

Arena Players is one of the first theaters Pierson ever saw a play in, now she's directing in it.

“I feel extremely lucky to be here and be part of it and also very nervous,” said Pierson.

She has a deep respect for the theater and the people who have come before her.

“That is the one and only Robert Chew,” said Owens. “Tracie Thoms, Damon Evans.”

They're also inspirations for the young kids attending the six-week intensive summer program.

“Their parents are coming to me saying, ‘Oh, my child is so tired.’ Yah, your child didn't come to a camp, your child came to work. And it feels good, it just feels good,” said Owens.

For Owens, he's continuing history and passing on his heritage. For the kids who come through Arena Players, they're laying the groundwork for a professional career, maybe in theater, or something else. Just like the Arena Players that came before them, they too can play the role of whoever they want to be.

“It frees them to be able to create and creating is not always theater, you know you can create being a teacher,” Owens said.

You can see Constellations & Crossroads Friday, February 16 through Sunday, February 18 at the Arena Players located at 801 McCulloh Street. For more information on tickets, click here.