New Freedom alumnus becomes artistic director of Philly’s African-American theater company

The New Freedom Theatre has tapped Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj to be  its artistic director. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The New Freedom Theatre has tapped Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj to be its artistic director. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The New Freedom Theatre in North Philadelphia has hired a permanent artistic director.

After years without a director, then a series of interim directors for short periods, the African-American theater company tapped Rajendra Maharaj.

It’s a homecoming for him.

Fifteen years ago, Maharaj became a true theater professional at the New Freedom Theatre, earning his union card while directing the premiere of “A Walk Through Time,” a musical by Lynn Nottage. He went on to a very busy and award-winning career in New York.

After feeling him out last summer with three productions, the theater called him back to be the artistic director.

“I’m thrilled,” said Maharaj. “For me, it’s a full-circle moment.”

Maharaj arrives as the theater celebrates its 50th anniversary as an African-American regional theater, one of the very few left in America. It had recently been through some tough times as budgets and audiences declined. It nearly did not survive.

Now out of debt, the company brought on Maharaj to help right the ship.

“His eclectic theater background as a playwright, director and choreographer — combined with his passionate vision of theater as a platform for social justice — will ensure New Freedom Theatre’s place as a major regional and national cultural treasure,” said board president Derek Hargreaves.

Philadelphia is a great theater town, but a segregated one, said Maharaj. He hasn’t seen very much community building across theater companies.

“Since I’ve been on officially for a month, I’ve been to so many plays and theaters around the city,” said Maharaj. “Many artistic directors come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much, this is the first time somebody from Freedom has come to see our work.’ My response is, ‘I hope you come to see our work as well.’ Hopefully, olive branches and bridges can be built that way.”

The New Freedom Theatre opens its 50th season Nov. 20, with “Black Nativity,” a holiday musical by Langston Hughes.

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