Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has been named as the new artistic director of New Freedom Theatre. He was guest artistic director last season, including his own The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, produced last summer at New Freedom.
In a statement, Derek Hargreaves, president of the New Freedom Theatre board of directors, singled out Maharaj's "eclectic theater background as a playwright, director, and choreographer, combined with his passionate vision of theater as a platform for social justice."
In his own statement, Maharaj, 44, noted that his first professional job was directing Lynn Nottage's musical Walk Through Time at the New Freedom. "I have always considered this to be my artistic birthplace," Maharaj said, "and one of the most vital regional theaters in the country."
Maharaj's resume is replete with social-justice theater work. He founded Rebel Theatre Company in 2010 in New York City, and Voices at the River at Arkansas Repertory Theater; the latter was a biannual play-development program in support of Latino/a and African American playwrights. He has directed or choreographed plays at The Public Theatre, Classical Theater of Harlem, Goodman Theatre, Signature Stage, Syracuse Stage, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Crossroad Theatre, and Portland Stage Company.
During his tenure as guest artistic director at the New Freedom, Maharaj, who is described as "Indo-Caribbean" on his Wikipedia page, has displayed ambition, showing considerable imagination and knowledge of theater history in his choice of plays and focusing them on social-justice issues. He has worked on every aspect of production, including set design, script, choreography, and music.
Of his revival of the 1971 Vinnette Carroll/Mickie Grant musical review Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, reviewer Jim Rutter praised Maharaj's resetting of the play to present-day Philadelphia, and his incorporation of the controversy over the demolition of William Penn High School (right across the street from New Freedom). "This update," Rutter wrote, "not only gives the piece local and contemporary flavor but also increases the stakes." Maharaj updated the lyrics "to include names of those that today inspire change in the African American community and to list, sadly, the names of those who have perished in encounters with police or other violence.
Of Maharaj's revival of Jamaica, a politically charged 1957 collaboration between Harold Arlen and "Yip" Harburg (who also collaborated on the songs for the film The Wizard of Oz), Inquirer reviewer Julia M. Klein said that it was "energetic, athletically danced, vocally uneven, and often unabashedly over the top." Maharaj, she said, "has imbued this production with charm and high spirits, but not quite enough polish or finesse. (Maharaj, Freedom's guest artistic director, also co-designed the brightly hued set.)"
Of the world premiere of The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, which Maharaj created with Thomas J. Soto, reviewer Toby Zinman, while finding the production uneven, praised its humor, its tremendous hip-hop dancing, and unfortunately timely message, and the clarity of social purpose in the production. "New Freedom Theatre has always been committed to the African American community and to using theater as an instrument to further social justice," Zinman wrote. "The Ballad of Trayvon Martin fits this mission."
New Freedom has endured where many other African American theaters have not. John Allen, Jr., founded an African American theater in 1966, and he and Robert E. Leslie, Jr., expanded it in 1968 into the New Freedom – popularly known as simply The Freedom. It is housed in the Edwin Forrest Building at 1346 N. Broad Street. Since its founding, the number of African American-focused theaters has declined in the United States from nearly 70 to about five. New Freedom, for its part, has been the site of both expressive, vigorous theater and financial struggles. In the past year, the theater has made news by firing its longtime legacy directors and trying to map a way forward, including the institution of free community events such as the monthly Edwin Forrest Reading Series, offering readings of African American plays; and Freedom Speaks, a serious of salon-type discussions of arts in the community, modeled after the Harlem Renaissance Salons. Maharaj's appointment is another step in that way forward.