Stevie Walker-Webb, a theater director and rising star who at the age of 36 has already been nominated for a Tony Award, was appointed Thursday as Baltimore Center Stage’s next artistic director.
When Walker-Webb begins his new job Oct. 2, he will be the ninth artistic director in the theater’s 61-year history. He succeeds Stephanie Ybarra, who stepped down March 17 to accept a position with the New York-based Mellon Foundation.
“I’m so excited,” Walker-Webb said.
“Baltimore Center Stage has a long history of galvanizing the community with exciting productions. Yes, I am becoming artistic director during a time of unprecedented challenges for live theater. But this is also a time of unprecedented opportunity. I feel like I’m joining a team of Avengers.”
Sandy Liotta, president of Center Stage’s board of trustees, said that Walker-Webb rose to the top of a pool of 115 applicants. Center Stage, like many performing troupes, also has a managing director, Adam Frank, who oversees finances and operations.
“Stevie checked off all of our boxes,” Liotta said.
“He is a gifted artist who has been nominated for a Tony Award in directing. He can electrify a rehearsal hall and a board meeting. When he talks about any production he is involved in, he makes us want to all run out of the room and see that show now. He’s also deeply committed to amplifying the qualities that make Baltimore special.”
Walker-Webb, who said he plans to live in Baltimore’s Madison Park, perhaps is best known as the director of “Ain’t No Mo’,” Jordan E. Cooper’s 2022 darkly comic satire about race relations. The play is set at an airport’s boarding gate after the U.S. government has purchased a one-way ticket to Africa for every Black American.
The play made headlines after it announced a closing date just eight days after its Broadway debut. Cooper launched the social media campaign #SaveAintNoMo, rallied the theater community and obtained a one-week extension.
Despite its short run, “Ain’t No Mo’” picked up six Tony nominations, including one for Walker-Webb.
“‘Ain’t No Mo’” did what it was meant to do,” Walker-Webb said.
“It opened the door for a different type of theater to be shown on Broadway. I saw an entire system stretching to grow and expand. The next time a play like that makes it to Broadway, the entire industry will know how to behave.”
Walker-Webb also is the first theater professional with a directing background to lead Center Stage since Irene Lewis departed in 2010.
The production of “Ain’t No Mo’” that appeared at Center Stage last October was not directed by Walker-Webb, and he isn’t on the roster to direct next season since those production teams were hired long before he landed his new gig. But Walker-Webb said that, like Lewis, he hopes to occasionally direct shows at the Baltimore theater.
‘The timing couldn’t be more perfect’
Since “Ain’t No Mo’”, Walker-Webb has been in great demand, and he hopes to leverage the close ties he has developed with theater companies nationwide to benefit Center Stage.
“I have relationships with some of the larger theaters in New York City,” he said.
“I’m very interested in doing co-productions of new works that would be created here in Baltimore, and that could travel from Center Stage to New York and beyond.”
Walker-Webb referred to a new state tax credit program that provides financial incentives for theater companies to mount Broadway tryouts or originate national tours.
“I’m coming in as artistic director when Maryland has a new governor who is deeply committed to the arts,” Walker-Webb said. “The timing couldn’t be more perfect.”
Walker-Webb directed three shows at Baltimore Center Stage last year, including “The Folks at Home” by R. Eric Thomas in March, “Our Town” in October and “Life is a Dream” in May.
Some audience members said they were disappointed by a couple of the productions which they said were not as strong as audiences at Maryland’s official state theater have come to expect.
But Walker-Webb said that as a freelance director, he did not have unlimited control over production decisions. He is proud of all three shows he has overseen, but added that he has not yet presented his full artistic vision to a Baltimore audience.
“I see live theater as a church in the wild,” he said. “Go to any good church or synagogue or tabernacle, and you’ll see people are having a good time and learning how to be better people. I believe that stories can change people. I believe that the most powerful tool theater has is the ability to create empathy in our hearts.”
Thomas admits to being nervous when rehearsals began on “The Folks at Home,” a world premiere and the culmination of the playwright’s career to that date. But Walker-Webb immediately won him over.
“When Stevie comes into a room, he doesn’t put his Tony nomination on the table,” Thomas said. “He comes in with a backpack, and a packed lunch and a lot of questions. He absolutely knows his [stuff] and yet he is so humble.”
Some improvements that Walker-Webb suggested, Thomas said, were so insightful that they have been incorporated permanently into the script.
Changing of the guard
Walker-Webb’s arrival also continues a changing of the guard in Baltimore. For the first time, leaders of the city’s largest cultural institutions are either women or artists of color.
Like Jonathon Heyward, another talented newcomer who will ascend the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra podium on Sept. 22, Walker-Webb’s biography is of someone who practically invented himself.
He grew up in a neighborhood in Waco, Texas that he describes as financially disadvantaged.
“I intuitively knew there was something wrong with the world I was growing up in,” he said. “How could my father, who had served his country in the Marines, or my mother, a church woman who was serving God, have such limited access to the greater world?”
Walker-Webb’s mother was a playwright, and as a child, he remembers sneaking scripts from the hiding place beneath her mattress, and then locking himself into a closet to read them.
Outraged that his high school lacked a performing arts program, Walker-Webb spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore years mowing lawns and selling sandwiches to raise enough money to found a theater club.
After graduating from college, Walker-Webb became founding artistic director of The Jubilee Theatre in 1981. The company still exists and describes itself on its website as “the original home of African-American theater in North Texas.”
But Walker-Webb’s most impactful production might have been the one to which he sold the fewest tickets.
In 2020 and during the height of the pandemic, the director’s brother,Steven Waday Walker-Webb, spiraled out of control on their parents’ front lawn after he couldn’t reach his psychiatrist for help adjusting medications that controlled his bipolar disorder. He was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 200 days.
Though Stevie Walker-Webb was 1,650 miles away in New York, he knew exactly what to do.
He hopped into his car and drove to Texas. After obtaining the necessary permits, he erected a 6-by-9-foot cage made from PVC pipes on the grounds of Waco’s McLennan County Jail, and locked himself inside for 24 hours on Aug. 22, 2020. The cage was the same size as his brother’s cell, and Walker-Webb ate the same meals and followed the same routine as his incarcerated brother.
Walker-Webb arranged to have the event livestreamed on the YouTube Channel of New York’s Public Theatre, and there were several articles about the protest. It took two months, but in November, his brother was released.
The protest was pure Walker-Webb: It was deeply theatrical. He made a serious point, but he made it without publicly criticizing anyone. And, he got results.
“I’ve always been someone who makes spaces where theater didn’t exist before,” he said. “I make a space where everyone can belong. That is my calling.”