The Arena Players, one of the oldest continually operating Black theater groups in the country, has received $4 million in federal money to rehab and modernize its building in Seton Hill.
The renovation will focus on making the building more accessible as well as updating educational spaces on the second and third floor. This is the largest funding allotment the organization has received in its history.
“This is like a dream come true,” said Catherine Orange, who has worked in the youth education program at Arena Players for more than 50 years.
U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Ben Cardin and supporters gathered in the theater Thursday to celebrate the announcement.
“It’s hard to get money these days, but you got it, because you deserved it,” Cardin said to leaders of the Arena Players.
The search for funding began a few years ago when former state senator and radio host Larry Young dedicated time to raising $6 million to rehabilitate the building. In 2019, Arena Players received $1.3 million in state funding and nonprofit donations.
“We’re hoping to receive more funding in the legislature this year and we are hopeful Gov. [Wes] Moore will give us funds in 2024 as well,” Young said. The theater is still hoping to raise an additional $1.7 million for improvements.
Architectural firm K. Dixon Architecture will oversee the project. The company submitted a bid a few years ago and has been waiting for the necessary funding to begin the work. Once building permits are secured and other paperwork is completed, they’re hoping to begin active construction next year.
Donald Owens, artistic director of Arena Players, said it was a team effort to secure these funds and made clear people had “been in the trenches with the theater.”
Jacqueline Caldwell, president of the Whittier-Monroe Neighborhood Association, was instrumental in collaborating with the theater to secure funding through the state and federal government. It all began when she sat in one of the uncomfortable theater seats.
“I came to a show once and the seats were so bad I had to talk to someone. … Then I saw Senator Van Hollen at an event at my church [Bethel AME] and he connected me with his assistant we got the ball rolling,” Caldwell said
Troy Burton — who recently produced “U Thought I Was Him, a Theatrical Mixtape” for the theater — is hopeful that this will continue to bring top-tier talent to the area. “This is one of the only places where they want to bring original Black theater and take a chance on experimentation,” he said.
Coryetha Arrington, 85, a volunteer at the theater for more than 25 years, is also excited for the new seats, as well as the revamped educational space. Arrington said she values the caliber of performances she’s seen and likens the actors to Broadway talent, noting that Tracie Thoms and others got their start in the theater.
Although renovations will take upward of a year, there are no plans to stop production.
“We have a reputation of being the longest continually running African American theater so we will find another home while renovations take place,” Orange said.