Coming Up: ‘A Growth Season’ for Arena Stage

“Shortly, in a few weeks,” said Hana S. Sharif at The Georgetowner’s March 21 cultural breakfast, “I’ll be announcing my first season.”

Of her seven months as Arena Stage artistic director, “it’s been a whirlwind,” she said. “It’s been a runaway train.”

Sharif, who joined Arena Stage last August after five years at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, promised to reveal all on April 26. Arena’s 2024-25 season will be “a growth season,” she told attendees: nine plays, including several world premieres.

From Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director for 25 years, Sharif “inherited 14 commissions.” And before she retired, Smith raised $1 million for what became the Molly Smith Fund for New Works. Not an endowment, that amount is to be spent within four years, said Sharif, maximizing its short-term impact.

Sharif commented on several recent and upcoming productions. The Avett Brothers musical “Swept Away,” which was extended to mid-January, “will likely be on Broadway.” That show, an East Coast premiere, was followed by the world premiere of Kia Corthron’s “Tempestuous Elements,” about the racist campaign to remove Black educator Anna Julia Cooper as principal of D.C.’s M Street High School in the early 1900s.

Back when “Tempestuous Elements” was scheduled, however, the script was not yet final. “I know it’s going to be finished,” said the soon-to-depart Smith, according to Sharif, whose passion for new play development matches her predecessor’s.

Following the new musical “Unknown Soldier” (the last musical by “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” creator Michael Friedman, noted Sharif), which opens later this month, will be Step Afrika!’s “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.” Celebrating the 30th anniversary of Step Afrika!, the show, inspired by Lawrence’s 60-panel series of paintings — divided between MoMA and the Phillips Collection — is a collaboration with the Phillips.

Every 2024-25 production will involve an education partnership, said Sharif. When an attendee commented on the outreach to students she had observed connected with “Tempestuous Elements,” Sharif added that alumni of Dunbar High School, the successor to M Street High School, also took part in programming.

Sharif gave a rundown of Arena’s existing education programs, including a ticket partnership with D.C. schools that benefits several thousand students annually, Camp Arena Stage (held at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School) and Voices of Now, in which middle school and high school students work with theater artists on original plays, presented at Arena each spring.

In addition to expanding this education “footprint,” Arena will be “revolutionizing our community engagement,” said Sharif, a believer in “theater from cradle to grave.” She hinted that one way “we’re hoping to meet all of D.C. where they live” may involve an outdoor venue and a “non-secular music tradition that comes from the church.”

Asked to name her favorite play, Sharif first shared some attachments and preferences. “I am an Austenite” (as in Jane), she said; her production of Christopher Baker’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” in St. Louis broke ticket-sales records. “I love musicals as well,” she continued. “I love Sondheim.”

Tennessee Williams was cited, and Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” which will be at the Folger this spring. She finally gave the honor to Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Might it come to Arena? “I imagine at some point,” she said.

At Spelman College, aged 19, Sharif encountered an essay by Zelda Fichandler, who co-founded Arena in 1950 as the first integrated theater in Washington, D.C. She then told herself: “If I ever run a theater that’s not my own, it must be Arena Stage.”

Now, after getting a master’s degree at the University of Houston and stints in Hartford, Baltimore and St. Louis — where she was the first Black woman artistic director of any major regional theater — it has happened, with Arena’s 75th anniversary season coming up in 2025-26.

Also part of Sharif’s planning: D.C.’s hosting of WorldPride in June of 2025 and the U.S. Semiquincentennial, America250, culminating on July 4, 2026. She is open to ideas, she told attendees, mentioning, as an aside, that she is “looking to put some work in London.”




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