Sandra N. Haughton, who has been serving as financial consultant for the debt-plagued Freedom Theatre for the past four years, has been named executive director of the organization, believed to be the nation's oldest black theater company.

Haughton, 60, is Freedom Theatre's first executive director and the first manager officially in charge of all operations since the departure more than two years ago of artistic director Walter Dallas, who also served as interim managing director. Haughton is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a seasoned arts administrator.

"We still have a ways to go," Haughton said Monday. "But we eliminated $4 million of our debt and for a change the IRS owes us money. There's still a bit [of debt] left, but we're looking to eliminate it."

Haughton said that the board made a conscious decision to appoint an overall manager for the theater, which has served as a producing theater company, a venue for other companies, a facilities rental operation and home for a highly regarded theater school.

All operations are headquartered in the historic Edwin Forrest mansion, North Broad and Masters Streets.

Next door to the mansion is the 299-seat John E. Allen, Jr. Theatre. Its poorly managed construction brought the very existence of Freedom into question. When the $7 million facility opened in 1999, Freedom was staggering under $3 million of debt. Deficits mounted.

"The board decided that what we really needed was an executive director in charge of all aspects of operations - artistic, education and facilities," said Haughton.

Maida Odom, a board member and former Inquirer writer and editor and now a professor of journalism at Temple University, said that Freedom has managed to wrestle the debt demon down with the help of city funding, negotiations with vendors, and grants and donations from institutions and individuals.

Appointing an executive director, she said, "shows a level of solvency" that has proven elusive in recent years.

Haughton said the board is now discussing the issue of production. Freedom currently rents its theater and uses it as a venue for student productions and community theater. The question is whether it should eventually resume mounting its own professional productions, house a resident company, provide a venue in partnership with another theater company, or pursue some hybrid.

Next year will mark Freedom's 45th anniversary, and Haughton said the plan is to mount productions after the last bit of debt is retired.

"We're working on a season for next year," said Haughton, "if we feel we're able to ameliorate all of the infrastructure issues. And we feel that's not insurmountable."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com