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Reunion in Bartersville

Veteran local theater gem delivers satisfying, old-fashioned whodunit

Photo: William A. Walker, License: N/A

William A. Walker

Randolph Smith (seated) is back, and Jaye Nicole (right) isn’t happy to see him.

Reunion in Bartersville

By Celeste Walker

Through July 3 at Arena Players

I haven’t been to a class reunion. And now, thanks to the Arena Players, I don’t feel bad about that at all. Celeste Walker’s Reunion in Bartersville, directed by Amini Johari Courts, places a stake in the heart of any high school reunion—which aren’t really ways of getting reunited. They’re ways of getting redivided. They help us remember what it is we never liked about people we grew up with. And after 50 years, age doesn’t heal wounds. It gives them time to fester.

So why do people show up? The question becomes more piquant in the Facebook age, when every day can be a reunion with a seventh-grade lovebird-turned-stalker. Class reunions offer a two- or three-day place for people to seize the stage again, and put their old pretensions and delusions of grandeur back to work. Were you an actor like Perry Rousel (Archie Williams), who hasn’t done much for a decade except drink? Well, at the reunion, you’re still the guy who hogged the stage at 17.

Bartersville mines that territory for all it’s worth and more, as the characters in this small group get a chance to strut and fret and, more to the point, strip off the protective wrapping of their selected high school foil.

At the core of the Bartersville High class of ’33 reunion are Janie Mae Hopper (Jaye Nicole) and Cous Pickett (William Walker), who managed to remain in dusty small-town middle-class security for decades. Janie Mae is a single spinster; Cous is her crotchety brother. Janie’s home—the set, constructed and designed by Ken Ellis, is a highlight of this production—is filled with 50 years of ineffectual, directionless living. Photographs of the deceased father hover over the living room; there are boxes of unpublished poetry and thick binders filled with photographs and clippings of now-passed-away high school peers. Then there’s a jar filled with preserved kidney stones, a testament to Janie Mae’s own compulsions.

Bartersville is an old-school whodunit, which revolves around the imminent arrival of mystery guest A.J. Hamm (Randolph Smith), who has been absent from Bartersville for about two decades. Those are years he spent in the state penitentiary for killing a young woman and, later, for killing a guard. He says he’s innocent. He also knows that his classmates fingered him on the stand. Now he’s back, and pissed off. And despite the wishful thinking of his ex-classmates, rumors of his demise are greatly exaggerated.

And now for what has become a familiar refrain in my articles about this theater: Rumors of Arena Players’ demise are also exaggerated. At 58, Arena Players—and the building itself—is a Baltimore treasure: the site of the oldest continuous African-American community theater in the country. The digital divide has made it difficult to get any information about this production, or any of its previous productions. For two years, I haven’t heard a peep from it, and it’s not hard to think, while passing by the large building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, that after years of physical decline, the theater is closed.

Well, it’s open. Air conditioning has been replaced by a gigantic fan. There are photos on the wall of the 300-seat theater’s more heady days: William Donald Schaefer, productions that two decades ago would get filmed on Channel 2.

But while the structure itself is aged, there’s a hard-core theater community supported in many parts by Coppin State University. And this cast takes Bartersville’s formula and plays it to the hilt with a joyful, zesty production. As Perry Roussel, Williams plays an actor who flaunts a faux-British accent but still, to his credit, burns up the dance floor. As Cous, Walker is a grumpy old man with occasional flashes of the old pizzazz. Nicole’s subtle portrayal of Janie Mae offers up an appealing spinster who’s wrapped herself in curling poetry manuscripts and illnesses, real and imagined. And most notably, Smith plays the role of A.J. in a way that makes him worth waiting for: brimming with a bitter rage that serves as an excellent counterpoint to the play’s bombastic characters.

Baltimore is notoriously the home of several theaters turned wastelands, but Arena deserves a position at the top of the city’s to-do list. As long as people are complaining about the lack of an arts center, and figuring out how to squeeze stages into decrepit shells, this building, with its theater, grand foyer, etc., is packed with possibilities. Maybe that’s not going to happen, but Arena—both the determined and capable group of actors that keeps it going and the theater itself—needs more support from the city than it’s getting.

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