Seated in the lobby of the Arena Players building on McCulloh Street, artistic director Donald Owens says he was instinctively suspicious when the Baltimore Rock Opera Society approached him about a collaboration.
His theater is the country’s oldest continuously operating black community theater; BROS is mostly white, known for its punk-ish affect, DIY ethos and imaginative productions.
And the two plays BROS was pitching highlighted African-American historical figures.
“You come in and you want to be part of our black history,” he remembers thinking. “I need to know in what point of view is this black history coming? See, there’s black history and then there’s black history you learn in school. They’re two different things.”
But after meeting with BROS artistic director Aran Keating, production director Debra Lenik and managing director Shannon Light Hadley, he found working together became relatively easy, thanks to BROS’ leaders sensitivity to racial tensions.
“What we don’t need is to be saved…we are not looking for missionaries,” says Owens. “Aran understood immediately what I was saying.”
Keating says there was “this kind of halting, get-to-know-you phase that comes with any collaboration.” But after running ideas by Owens, bringing him to all of their production meetings and sitting in with him during auditions at Arena Players, it became evident things would work out.
“We’ve really just arrived at this point where we’re on the same page about the work we do,” says Keating.
BROS and the Arena Players have spent months prepping for their two-part show, “Constellations and Crossroads,” which premieres tonight. Part one, titled “Determination of Azimuth,” concerns the work of Katherine Johnson, the black NASA chief mathematician who charted the course for the return of Apollo 11 and other space journeys, which was recently the subject of the film “Hidden Figures.”
Part two, “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing,” written by Nairobi Collins and directed by Keating, chronicles famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson’s mythical choice to sell his soul to the devil for musical celebrity. The play charts his influence on gospel, blues and other genres ahead of rock music’s evolution.
The pair of short plays come from BROS’ 2015 “Six-Pack,” but have been reworked and adapted for the collaboration with the Arena Players.
“It was actually a pretty big overhaul,” says “Determination of Azimuth” co-director Lola Pierson. “It’s definitely a different vibe.”
Changes for the first mini-musical included “recontextualizing” composer Andrew Bernstein’s original celestial-themed music, she said, and recruiting an all new cast, for which they “leaned pretty heavily on Arena [Players] to cast the black characters.”
The effort was timely, she notes, given the country’s persistent racial tensions and issues confronting segregation.
“I think we’re at a really specific point in history with racial conflict, and with racial understanding, and it feels really good to be part of a project that is in some way trying to address that,” Pierson says.
Key to the production was BROS’ attention to detail with props and sets; Owens describes “Determination of Azimuth” as “total immersion.” Much of this is thanks to Heather Graham, a NASA astrobiologist who wrote the play and co-directed it with Pierson, bringing scientific authenticity to the work.
“We have the boards that actually have the real math on it,” says Arena Players actress Valerie Lewis, who’s playing the lead role of Katherine Johnson. “The papers that we’re tossing around are the actual papers that Katherine Johnson helped co-author. It’s freaking amazing.”
(Guests need not fear; Lewis said they’ll receive a “briefing packet” to help them follow along.)
The star performer will play another pretty high-profile role in “Blue Apple Crossing”: Jesus Christ.
“For people who are religious, this might not sit well with them,” she says. “Jesus is a woman, and my character’s gonna have a beard. And Jesus is a bit of an asshole—a little bit, a little bit full of himself.”
And herein lies an example of what they must confront by working together. Their audiences are considerably different, Owens notes: BROS show attendees are largely white, and expect some rowdiness from the company; Arena Players, while no stranger to experimentation, has an entrenched community following to appeal to, including church groups who purchase tickets in bulk.
“Everybody’s aware this is something different,” Owens says. “So now we’re waiting to see how they respond.”
But concerns aside, there’s a chance the spirit of collaboration between the two companies can extend beyond the stage, he adds. “Both of us will be getting different audiences. It’s more or less because one audience has never bothered to go to see the other, but that’s true on both sides. So this is one of those kumbaya moments.”
The finished product is set to premiere tonight at 8 p.m. Owens assures the show will be a new experience for those in the audience.
“They’ll go home with some questions, and they may even be here with some questions,” Owens says.
“That’s what good theater does,” adds Lewis.
“Constellations and Crossroads” runs from tonight through Sunday, Feb. 11, and Feb. 16-18, at Arena Players, located at 801 McCulloh Street. Tickets $20.
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