Arena Stage welcomes first Black artistic director

WTOP's Jason Fraley greets Arena Stage's new Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif (Part 1)

Artistic director Molly Smith retired this summer after a prolific 25-year run in the nation’s capital.

Now, Arena Stage welcomes its very first African American artistic director starting this fall season.

“Following in the great footsteps of the iconic Zelda Fichandler and the visionary Molly Smith, it is such a joy to be artistic director here at Arena Stage and something that in some ways feels manifested,” artistic director Hana S. Sharif told WTOP. “I remember when I was 19-years-old, saying and writing down that one day I would be artistic director of Arena Stage, so it does feel like a gift to be able to lead this company in the next phase of its life.”

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Sharif mostly grew up in Houston, Texas, discovering theater at an early age.

“My mom said I was a bit of a dramatic child, so very early she put me in theater,” Sharif said. “I started writing plays when I was very young. I produced and directed by first play when I was 17. We called it ‘Black Butterfly,’ this combination of poetry, movement and monologues that I had written for my high school. … It really was this transformative, catalytic moment in my life. … It blew open my idea of what might be possible in terms of a career.”

During her sophomore year at Spelman College, she started her own production company, Nasir Productions.

“The chair of our theater department, who really was a foundational figure … left at the end of our freshman year,” Sharif said. “A bunch of us were on the floor of my apartment, talking about all of the work that we wanted to do and just made a decision that we could go get it, that we could create our own work, that we could learn by doing. Over pizza and soda and some folks with some beer, we sketched out a mission statement and we were off.”

She continued to hone her theatrical craft during graduate school at the University of Houston, which allowed her to care for her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer at the time.

“I said I was gonna go and steal the master’s tools, I was going to learn what made the largest theaters in the country so successful, then take that learning back to my small scrappy theater,” Sharif said. “It [just] so happened that in my graduate program … I was mentored in playwriting by Edward Albee, I was mentored in directing by Sir Peter Hall, I wrote new musicals with Stuart Ostrow, just these incredible, truly historic figures in the field.”

After grad school, she went to work at Hartford Stage in Connecticut for nearly a decade.

“I got in the car with my old college roommate, who was starting grad school in New York, and we drove cross-country on this massive adventure to the rest of our lives,” Sharif said. “I came and met with the associate artistic director, Christopher Baker. It was supposed to be a 30-minute interview and we spent three and a half-hours together. I just really loved the conversation. We had a similar passion for art, a lot of wrestling with ideas and I felt really alive.”

After giving birth to her first child, Sharif moved to Boston where her husband got a consulting job.

“My second week in Boston I got a call from a colleague, who actually used to work at Arena, David Dower [and] was at ArtsEmerson in Boston and said, ‘A little birdie told me you’re in town and not working for an institution,’ I said, ‘That is true,’ so he offered me a job and I turned it down, but he said, ‘Let’s go to lunch.’ … At the end of lunch, they were like, ‘Great, you’ve got the job,’ and I was like, ‘What job?’ … I worked for two years at ArtsEmerson.”

She made her way down to Baltimore’s Center Stage where she spent five years.

“My phone started ringing,” Sharif said. “One of the folks was Kwame Kwei-Armah, who at the time was artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage. … He was looking for an associate artistic director and for the director of a thing called The Fourth Space, this nexus space between art, technology and digital theater. … I remember calling Kwame and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to come, I want to work for you, but I don’t want one of the jobs, I want both of them.'”

In 2018, she joined The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis as the first Black woman to lead a major regional theater.

“St. Louis had very similar demographics to Baltimore and St. Louis also had very similar challenges as a city, so I thought I could continue that work and that I could have a meaningful impact through the regional theater on the city of St. Louis, so that’s why I really went full throttle at wanting to become artistic director there,” Sharif said. “I will say it was one of the great honors of my life to serve as artistic director in my five years in St. Louis.”

When she learned that Molly Smith was retiring from Arena Stage, it was a no brainer.

“There was no way that I could not throw my hat into the ring,” Sharif said. “One, Molly is truly a visionary leader for the last 25 years. She’s been at the forefront of the field. As a woman coming up in the field, she really has been an inspiration for myself and so many other female artistic directors. … It felt like the universe was calling. For me, there was something almost spiritual about the opportunity. … I feel very fortunate and excited about the future.”

She remains humbled to go down in history as Arena Stage’s first Black artistic director.

“It’s bittersweet because every time I break through a glass ceiling, I recognize that I come as one but I stand as 10,000,” Sharif said. “I understand that I am only here because of all of the Black women before me that pushed those doors and pushed against that ceiling. … It is an honor and a responsibility to be the body, the vessel that is carrying the hopes and dreams of all those who paved the way before me and those coming behind me.”

Find more about Arena Stage here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley greets Arena Stage's new Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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