Thirteen weeks into his tenure as American Stage’s producing artistic director, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj reports that things are moving along according to plan.
Maharaj, who pointedly refers to himself as “artist and activist” in his official biography, has been very clear since the beginning that American Stage productions, under his leadership, will take on new levels of inclusivity and relevance.
He’s directing the company’s annual holiday production, Tom Mula’s dramedy Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol. Opening Friday, the show re-examines Charles Dickens’ venerable Yuletide redemption story from the perspective of Scrooge’s long-dead business partner. “I just loved the idea of being able to constantly break the fourth wall, where the actors will speak directly to the audience,” says Maharaj, who’d produced Jacob Marley during his tenure as an artistic producer at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. “I thought it was cheeky and fun and exciting.”
Playwright Mula made it clear that his show could be set in pretty much any period of time, in any location. Maharaj’s version takes place in London, in 1981.
“I looked at 1981 and all the things that were happening in the punk culture, the generation of gay men being affected by HIV, the conversation between Ireland and England,” he says. “Here in St. Pete, the theme of the haves and the have-nots is still very much in play. So I thought it was a good marriage.”
This puts the American Stage version of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol – even though its subject matter is admittedly light – squarely in line with his outline for the future.
“I just kept thinking about how the use of chains was such a thing in punk culture. And in Marley, he’s chained and locked. It became the idea of how we are chained to the past – and also, as human beings, what is the common thing we’re trying to learn? To be better human beings.”
St. Pete Catalyst: Does there always have to be some sort of message? Do you try to find a message in everything?
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj: I do! Coming up in the American theater, and studying the craft of storytelling, for me the best work entertains, yes, but it moves the conversation forward in some way. Whatever that conversation might be. A lot of folks come to the theater to escape, but because I live in this time and space, to quote Dr. Maya Angelou, I feel I have a great responsibility to acknowledge this time and space in my art, and my craft.
Can you reiterate your vision for this theater, and tell me how it’s changed or not changed since you’ve now been here for a while. And – how’s it going?
The entire American Stage staff community – the trustees, the board, as well as our incredible staff – did these town hall meetings. I got to meet the community and hear the needs, and the stories that people want to hear and say. And one of the things that really struck me in my heart and my mind as a leader was that a lot of the stories we tell don’t always reflect the true St. Pete. I want to be able to really hear that, to see it reflected in not just our storytelling but our board, our staffing, and our outreach into the communities.
It’s going well. And I think we’ve tapped into new communities who knew we were here by the fact that we were being so forward-thinking, in the world that we live in today.
Coming back from the pandemic, there is the opportunity to write a new chapter. Not just because I’m here and I’m new, but also as people came back to the empty space to gather, what would that mean? What would that be?
Conversely, was there a danger, in your mind, that perhaps American Stage was playing it too safe before? Playing to the same audience, they know what we do, let’s please the crowd? And you wanted to break that mold?
I think in the vetting process, in our conversations, there was an exciting truth that we had built this legacy for 44 years, but we wanted to be part of the bigger conversation. Not just in terms of the art we present, but also bringing art – developing new playwrights, bringing stuff to New York and Chicago and Philly and other big theater cities, and having those relationships.
And also cultivating our relationships. I live in South St. Pete, and I jog. Coming from Brooklyn, I like to walk. And I didn’t see any American Stage posters. For me, that’s saying that there’s a part of our community that we’re not outreaching to. And I live in that community. So I really wanted to be able to make that a forward objective, to represent and reach out to all of St. Pete.
Knowing boards as I do, I have to ask – your board has been receptive to your visions?
It’s been a lot of ‘yes, yes, and how do we help make that happen?’ I’ve just been very fortunate to have a clear vision and to have a board – and, particularly, a staff – that really has started to buy into the vision, and also enhance the vision. Because they’ve been here for so long, many of them, and they can say ‘Hey, this is a great path, continue this. Develop these relationships.’ It seems like there’s a time right now where people really want to come together and have honest art, and honest conversation.
So Footloose The Musical is coming up in the spring. How do you make that topical?
What I think is cool about Footloose is that there’s this feel of Americana. What I’m hoping that we can do with our casting and with the choreography is really show the influences of other communities on the American fabric. So we know that rock ‘n’ roll would not have existed without the African-American experience – the blues, gospel – and so to represent that in the choreography, as well as the casting. And show other influences that have happened around that area, that time in history and bring them forth.
One of the cool things is that we’re going to be honoring local St. Pete choreographers and dance companies, particularly people of color who have been teaching at churches and small places for years and years, enriching the cultural aspect of our community through dance.
Later in the season you’re producing Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman. Tell me about it.
As I said before, I think that theater should speak of the times. And I feel like Dutchman is one of those timeless pieces. Believe it or not, I think we have never done a Amiri Baraka play. And we know that one of the things that has been a big flagship for us is that we’ve done all the August Wilson plays. We know that there would be no August Wilson without Amiri Baraka, and just the influence Amiri has had on so many artists in the American theater. So many great writers have been influenced by the work.
So to be able to partner not just with our community but with the drama department at the school here, for the first time, it’s such a necessary conversation about race and identity. And that intersection when people are on a train, and have to have a conversation and deal with each other. And then using the myth of Adam and Eve, as Amiri Baraka so masterfully does … it’s just a really brilliant opportunity for us to have a bigger conversation not just about the art, but also about how we still see each other in this country.
Is there room for shows that are just entertaining?
Yes! I think, though, that there are shows that are super-entertaining that we’ve never touched. That I think are really important, from different diasporas, that I’d like to introduce. In my first year of programming – next season – you’ll see a little bit more musical theater on our Mainstage. As well as some new works by new playwrights who have not been produced nationally, and we’ll be the first touching stone before they move to New York, Chicago or L.A.