Rajendra R. Maharaj takes over as artistic director of major American theater American Stage, making him the first Black person in Florida to accomplish such a feat.
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST PETERSBURG – In 2021, it’s still groundbreaking when a Black person takes over as artistic director of a major American theater. But in Florida, it’s even bigger news because it’s the first time in the entire state.
Maharaj, who is highly awarded and recognized as both a director and a playwright, came with a pedigree that includes recently serving as assistant director for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones.
Previously he was the associate artistic producer of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, artistic director of New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia, and producing artistic director of Rebel Theater in Brooklyn.
He has directed/choreographed productions at theaters across the country and won awards, including the prestigious Woodie King Jr. Award, a Barrymore Award, several Vivian Robinson AUDELCO Awards, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society Theatrical Moment of the Year, and The New York International Fringe Festival Overall Excellence Award.
American Stage assured Maharaj during his vetting process that it was his curriculum vitae and not his skin color that was being considered. But for Maharaj, the one couldn’t be separated from the other.
“I feel very fortunate,” shared the theater artist during a recent conversation. “There is a beautiful wave of change and opportunity happening for BIPOC leadership in the American theater. And I feel very fortunate after going through the vetting process to be in this position.”
Maharaj noted that it didn’t fall short on him that he was selected as the first Black person to run a multi-million-dollar Florida theater.
“There certainly were BIPOC leaders who were more qualified, but for whatever reason didn’t have the opportunity or the access,” he acknowledged. “I stand on their shoulders, and I am excited to create a space that really reflects the best part of America, which I believe is our diversity.”
The creative firebrand also comes with a law degree, with time spent as a vice-president for the NAACP in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was also founding chairman for its Equity in the Arts and Culture Committee. That commitment to fighting for equity is part of who Maharaj is to his very core; in transitioning to the theater, he brings it with him.
Maharaj’s work as a documentary theater maker started with the “Little Rock,” based on interviews with the nine brave souls who desegregated Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. The project, developed over 13 years, traveled from Arkansas to California, New Jersey, and finally New York City, winning acclaim and being called “viscerally affecting” by the New York Times.
After “Little Rock,” the documentary theater maker said he “branched off into telling stories of our people in our time, being unapologetic and having the permission to uphold these stories.” For Maharaj, the work is not just about learning, but also healing, making sure “we never forget their names,” and using the theater “as a platform to enlighten and teach.”
His play “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin,” which premiered at Philly’s New Freedom Theatre, documented the last seven hours of Trayvon Martin’s life through hip-hop music and modern dance.
“I only tell stories that stir my soul; that speak to my curiosity or my anger, or my dream either realized or dreams deferred,” he noted. “There have been at times, where stories, particularly by artists, have been whitewashed to make it comfortable for white audiences to digest.”
Maharaj acknowledged that he has benefited from the legacy of James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, Coretta Scott King, and Dr. Betty Shabazz. “All of these artists and activists, through their struggle and their sacrifice, opened the door for me to be able to be a little bit more unapologetic in who I am, what I stand for, and what I believe.”
So far, he says, he has had healthy debates with American Stage board members, who Maharaj said have embraced his commitment to presenting a theater season, staff, board of trustees, and slate of community partners that reflect the entirety of St. Pete.
Having experience working at Freedom Theater, in economically strapped North Philly, in order to create more inclusive offerings, he plans to bring some of what worked there to American Stage. One such program brings free play readings to the community on Monday evenings.
Upcoming in 2022, Maharaj will direct a production of Amiri Baraka’s explosive “Dutchman,” which he sees as a reconjuring of the story of Adam and Eve through the characters of a contemporary Black man and a Caucasian woman.
Playing currently at American Stage is Neil Simon’s comedy “The Odd Couple,” directed by Adam Mace, starring Michael Burgess and Damon Dennin, running from Oct. 27 to Nov. 21.
In casting Michael Burgess, who is Black, in the role of Felix Unger, Maharaj said, “Neil Simon was very direct, that this should be presented in present-day New York. In present-day New York, you see Black and white folks coming together, different diversities, folks from the Latinx community.”
While he believes the opportunity didn’t exist when the play was originally produced on Broadway to cast a Black man, the new artist director added, “Now we have a chance to meet the opportunity of the moment right now in the present day, New York.” For tickets, visit americanstage.org.