By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Freedom Theater on North Broad Street has new lease on life, just in time for its 50th anniversary. The once struggling theater has turned a corner.

The challenges were vast: $6-million in debt, a crumbling building, busted pipes and even no heat, yet the Freedom Theater kept moving, trudging along slowly.

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“We had a lot of challenges,” says Sandra Haughton, executive director, “but we persisted.”

The theater has been lauded by those at the top of the profession — actors like Denzel Washington has praised the theater’s youth training programs and Melba Moore has taken the stage in years past. Actors like Erica Alexander of the “Cosby Show” and Leslie Odom, who is starring in “Hamilton” on Broadway, both began on the Freedom stage. Yet, the challenges persisted. Finally, that persistence is paying off.

“I’m really excited, it’s just an exciting time,” says Sandra Haughton, executive director. She says theater has reorganized, renovated sections of its historic space and hired new staff. She says more than $5-million of the theater’s debt is paid in part because of help from the city. Although past questions were raised over use of the funds, Haughton says they implemented a three year plan and are moving forward. New productions open next month.

“We went up to New York to see a reading of the Trayvon Martin Play– and I said we have to have him here,” says Haughton, of new Guest Artistic Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. He is co-author of Ballad of Trayvon Martin, a docu-drama about the last seven hours the 17-year-old boy whose death sparked the Black Lives Matter Movement.

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“The theater came out of the black arts movement…so it makes sense that it part of the Black Lives Matter Movement going on right now,” says Maharaj, who won a Barrymore Award for his work. He says the play will premiere at the Freedom Theater, a space that has a history of telling stories about the Black experience.

“Freedom theater has always been a theater that has had activism at its core,” he says.

Amir Randall, a 16-year-old from Northwest Philadelphia will star in the production as “Trayvon in the Hoodie.” He started training at Freedom in their Young Artists Repertory Ensemble. Now he’s taking his talent to the next level in a professional production.

“I’ve done research on Emmitt Till, Eric Garner,” he says, noting that the idea of playing a boy his age, who was killed is tough.

“He played football, I play football, he talked to girls, I talk to girls,” he says, “I have on a hoodie…and I walk with it on all the time…I just hope people feel what I’m bringing.”

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The Ballad of Trayvon Martin opens next month.