Robert Lee Hardy knew since he was a kid that he wanted to be an actor.

He was just learning to read when he saw his first name on television and thought in his 5-year-old mind it meant he would be on TV. He even woke up his mom to come watch. Even back then, he knew, he said.

Hardy now lives in Los Angeles and acts professionally, having appeared in film and on stage, including on HBO’s “The Wire, “Jazz in the Diamond District,” “Home” and “The Snowy Day.” He also wrote two one-man shows: “Me, Myself and Us” and “I Carry My Own Spotlight.”

But it is Baltimore where he says he owes his introduction to theater and first began sharpening his acting chops. He participated in youth theater programs and met teachers and other local actors who nurtured his talent.

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Now he’s back in his hometown to star in a production at Arena Players Incorporated, one of the oldest continuously operating Black community theaters in the nation, with a stage where his passion for theater developed.

“It’s programs right here in Baltimore City that literally saved my life. There was a lot of things I could have gotten into, but I was busy,” Hardy said about how acting kept him out of trouble.

Hardy’s starring in a play called “Marty and the Hands That Could” by Josh Wilder, about a man returning home from prison on the eve of his 25th birthday. Although prison time is behind him, once home he finds himself navigating generational curses, like addiction, in his family. It’s a production to which Hardy believes many people in Baltimore can relate.

“I believe that this show can be healing for abusers or a relative or partners. … It’s such a slice of life. It’s almost therapeutic,” Hardy said.

Robert Lee Hardy, star of "Marty and the Hands That Could," stands on the stage at Arena Players Incorporated, where the play is being shown, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. Arena Players Incorporated is the theater where Hardy took his first steps into acting before moving to Los Angeles. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

Hardy is excited to take center stage in the full-circle moment of his return, but there’s no closing the curtain on the characters and coincidences that got him this far in the first place.

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By the time Hardy started school in West Baltimore, he loved to read, especially the books by R.L. Stine his mother bought him. His second grade teacher at Mary E. Rodman Elementary School, Diane Z. Christopher, remembers his outgoing personality and that he was quite the talker in class. She sometimes had to keep him after school, but she also encouraged him to participate in extracurricular activities, including reading a poem in a dramatic reading contest.

“He was just a wonderful student to have, a great thinker, and I’m just proud of him,” Christopher said.

In middle school, he goofed off and got in trouble in class even more. Hardy estimates he got suspended over a dozen times. Sitting in the hallways after getting kicked out of class became a ritual at the former West Baltimore Middle School. It caught the attention of the “school mom” Sandra Meekins, a special education teacher. She claimed Hardy as a “nephew” and tried to keep him out of trouble but initially scratched her head over where to redirect Hardy’s excess energy.

Then, she heard him recite a poem.

“It was the fact that he was internalizing the poem and he wasn’t just saying the words,” Meekins said. “Theater is about taking and making the moments come alive for the audience to see what it is you see and you feel.”

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Meekins added that it was as though Hardy’s obscured talents and gifts were beginning to blossom.

An art teacher at the middle school recommended she get him involved with Arena Players. Hardy looked around the theater and “it has all been history,” Meekins said.

Hardy eases around Arena Players like he’s at home, shuffling in and out of the lavender and orange-colored rooms guided by memories. Sporting a light salmon sweater that says “Shoot Films Not People,” Hardy pointed to a classroom of singing, young students and said, “That used to be me.” Though he left for college at State University of New York at Purchase and other acting endeavors, he always came back to teach at Arena Players during summers.

Now at the Arena Players’ 300-seat theater, where “Marty and the Hands That Could” takes the the stage until Jan. 28, it was surreal for Hardy to look left and right and see actors from the Los Angeles production back home with him to perform. The production was originally performed at the WACO Theater Center in Los Angeles, and Hardy had always wished the play would come to Baltimore.

Returning to Arena Players still ignites those first-time feels for Hardy. The theater is a place where he can “feel the presence of the ancestors” and warmth. And then there’s another significant, unchanging quality to the theater — Catherine Orange. Orange has been involved with the theater for over 50 years, and Hardy can attest that she “don’t play any games.”

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Robert Lee Hardy, star of "Marty and the Hands That Could," stands backstage at Arena Players Incorporated, where the play is being shown, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

Orange is a retired Baltimore City College English teacher of 40 years. As an educator she has a lot of faith in young people. Hardy “had a sincere desire to perform and give his best,” she said. While her front office is bright and inviting, “they didn’t want to come in here because they’d get laid out,” said Orange of having to play the role of a disciplinarian, as needed. Hardy landed himself in her office a couple of times, but she said it didn’t deter him from staying the course. From all the young people, Orange only accepts their 110% because it prepares them for the real world.

“We’ve groomed some heavy hitters,” she said.

Arena Players is where Hardy would find significant mentors, including Robert Chew, a Baltimore native and acting coach and actor known for his role in “The Wire.” Chew helped prepare Hardy for his audition at the State University of New York at Purchase after splitting his high school career between Baltimore School for the Arts and Dunbar High School. College was rigorous, often demanding 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. days with only Sundays off, but he made it through and earned his degree in acting.

An old photo of Robert Lee Hardy, star of "Marty and the Hands That Could" is seen at Arena Players. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

“Sometimes you have to create your own meal ticket and carry your own spotlight,” he said.

Hardy approaches his roles by assessing “who the human being is first” and digging into the text of scripts to analyze how the person would talk, react or even blink.

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In “Marty and the Hands That Could,” he plays a veteran with heart failure, a post-traumatic stress disorder and a substance use disorder. The character is “gone because he doesn’t want to feel anymore,” Hardy said. He drew inspiration from the war stories of his uncle, who struggled with a substance use disorder and died in 2013. In some ways, the role is a “dedication to him,” Hardy added.

Hardy doesn’t think that theater has to be boring and that this specific show is everyone and not just frequent theater-goers. Theaters like Arena Players need the continued attendance and donations because “if there aren’t any butts in the seat, how you gonna pay your light bill?” he asked.

Between a recent technical run-through of the show, Hardy went off script to capture the overlapping feelings of being back in Baltimore to perform.

“Theater saved my life. It feels good to be home, and go Ravens,” he said.