Theatre legend Woodie King Jr. met his protégé Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj 10 years ago—they were sitting next to each other in class, the oldest and youngest students in the MFA directing program at Brooklyn College. In Maharaj, King saw the seeds for the hip-hop project he had wanted to produce; their brainchild, Diss Diss & Diss Dat, gave Maharaj the opportunity to co-write, choreograph and direct at King’s New Federal Theatre in New York City. Since then, King’s mentoring has helped Maharaj connect with regional theatres, such as St. Louis Black Repertory Company (where Maharaj directed Damn Yankees, which snagged Maharaj a Woodie Award, named for his mentor) and Crossroads Theatre Company (where he is working on a commission). Now, as King supervises his 35th season at New Federal, Maharaj is planning his first season with Rebel Theater, his own company dedicated to marginalized voices.
WOODIE KING JR.: I was going to Brooklyn College, right? So I was the older guy, and I meet Rajendra, and I look at this guy and everything he touches turns to gold. Somebody says, “I don’t think you can do that,” and he doesn’t even hear it! I loved it, I loved it! So I asked him to come do a reading at New Federal. In theatre it’s about the energy, and he has this energy to make things happen.
RAJENDRA MAHARAJ: He saw something in me that I didn’t even realize was there. To have someone of Woodie’s stature say, “You remind me of myself—you remind me of George Wolfe”—these names mattered to me. Woodie has always pushed me to be a better artist—not just as a director and choreographer, but by giving me a chance to produce as well, to see opportunities of that kind. So I’ve started my own company, Rebel Theater, following in the legacy of New Federal. And Woodie’s been a touchstone for me in terms of connecting and learning and knowing: These are the walls and doors I’ve had to knock down. You might not have to knock down those, but there are others that you will.
KING: I think a major problem with professional theatre is that the artistic leadership doesn’t trust the young directors to bring the thing in. We’ve made huge gains as people of color in the last 15 or 20 years—we have brilliant young directors, and then the LORT theatres don’t use them. And those people who work in black theatre—actors, directors—are just so underpaid. Young directors come in that you really think a lot of, and you gotta find a way of taking care of them. Give them the artistic freedom that is sorely lacking everywhere else.
MAHARAJ: Be invested in the person’s life, and say: This is what I did at your age. Or say: Maybe do some Shakespeare, you don’t have enough Shakespeare. Or say: Directors have to direct. For me, as a black director, the opportunities that have mattered the most have been mostly provided by the black theatres. There’s a whole generation that we’re going to lose to film and television and video if we don’t continue to provide opportunities for these artists to tell stories that matter to them.
There’s hope, because he picked me, and I’m continuing that, working with my company. It’s like a pebble in the pond. Another generation of strong black men in theatre are coming up, men who stand on Woodie’s shoulders.
Kathryn Walat is a New York City–based playwright. Her plays include Know Dog, Connecticut and Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen.