Some new arrivals to Baltimore say later on that the city grew on them. But Stevie Walker-Webb felt an intrinsic connection as soon as he stepped off a train at Penn Station a few years ago.
“Walking from Station North to Mount Vernon, I just fell in love with the vibe and the pace of the city,” the Waco, Texas, native said last week. “I didn’t want to leave.”
The Tony-nominated director no longer has to: Baltimore Center Stage has named Walker-Webb its new artistic director. He starts Oct. 1.
For Walker-Webb — who earned the job after a monthslong national search that included more than 130 candidates, said Center Stage managing director Adam Frank — the appointment caps a year of career flourishes. After he directed “Life is a Dream” at Center Stage in May, “Ain’t No Mo’” — the Broadway comedy that abruptly closed less than three weeks after its December opening — earned six nominations at June’s Tony Awards, including best direction for Walker-Webb and best play.
Yet after years of working as a nomadic artist and freelance director in cities such as Atlanta, Johannesburg, New York and more, Walker-Webb said he can’t wait to put down roots in Baltimore as he grows into his new role at the area’s leading regional theater. He’s already found his “perfect home” in Patterson Park.
“Being artistic director, I’m a permanent fixture,” Walker-Webb said during a Zoom interview last week from Boston, where he’s staying as a Harvard University guest lecturer and directing a production of “Fat Ham.” “I get to be truly civically engaged.”
One of his first priorities, he said, is to talk to locals about the types of productions they want to see at Maryland’s state theater. As the theater industry aims to recover from the pandemic, Walker-Webb said it’s his responsibility to put consumers back in seats by meeting public demand.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m obsessed with some niche idea. If it doesn’t relate to where the city is and what the city is interested in talking about, it’s not important,” he said. “What’s most important is programming things that people get really jazzed, really turned up, really excited about.”
Walker-Webb follows interim artistic director Ken-Matt Martin and Stephanie Ybarra, who left the post in the spring after a five-year tenure marked with intentional choices that provided a high-profile platform for artists of color who performed plays such as “Dream Hou$e” and “Thoughts of a Colored Man” that challenged and entertained Center Stage audiences. In April, she became the Mellon Foundation’s program officer in arts and culture.
Aside from navigating Center Stage through the pandemic, which temporarily shuttered the theater and led to employee furloughs, Ybarra faced pushback for her programming decisions — even from some Center Stage trustees, including Michael Styer, who told The Baltimore Sun he left the theater in protest of Ybarra’s production choices.
Walker-Webb is no stranger to work that can both titillate and unnerve audiences. “Ain’t No Mo’” generated big laughs against a backdrop of Black American characters boarding a “reparations flight” from Gate 1619. Despite its short Broadway run, the production was further proof to Walker-Webb that comedy remains one of the most effective paths to empathy and understanding.
“‘Ain’t No Mo’' is a play that has a real punch but it’s got so much comedy in it that you’re laughing your way into enlightenment,” he said. “You’re laughing your way into new ways of thinking and being. It’s not preaching at you — it’s almost tickling you into epiphany.”
Walker-Webb said he won’t shy away from this kind of approach at Center Stage, but his first priority is to entertain.
“People want to be challenged, but they want to have a good time, too. It doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is really, really profound if it bores me to death or I feel like it wasn’t worth my two hours or the ticket price that I paid for it,” he said. “But if you entertain me and you challenge me? That’s the sweet spot.”
Walker-Webb is set to lead Center Stage’s 2023-24 season, which was programmed by Ybarra and kicks off Sept. 14 with the Baltimore-centric “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Other upcoming plays include “Cinderella (Enchanted Edition),” a reimagining of the Disney classic by the local, all-Black theater company ArtsCentric, and the hip-hop musical “Mexodus.”
Planning for next season will start this fall, he said. Walker-Webb said Center Stage will begin announcing the first productions with him at the artistic helm sometime next year.
Frank, who was hired in December and served on the search committee for the artistic director role, said the hiring of Walker-Webb had “unanimous support” from everyone at Center Stage. Frank is confident Walker-Webb will bridge generational and cultural gaps to bring new consumers to a theater with 60 years of history.
“We are just totally inspired by the way that he thinks about those things and the work he wants to make here,” Frank said. He later added, “I think we’re really lucky to have him.”
Walker-Webb doesn’t hide his ambitious plans for Center Stage and the Baltimore theater industry at large. As an artist who has worked all over the world, Walker-Webb said he’s never experienced a city with the “kind of synergy and complexity” that Baltimore offers — with its mix of rich history, cultural institutions and “hyperpolitical, hyperengaged” residents.
“I think it’s a true cultural mecca,” he said, “and I’m excited to be able to amplify what makes this place so special.”
Amplification is, indeed, the idea. It’s common for Marylanders to travel to nearby cities in pursuit of nationally acclaimed art. Walker-Webb wants to know: Why not Baltimore? It’s its “own destination.”
He can already picture it. “People coming from D.C., coming from Philly, taking a train from New York — just to see what we’re doing because we’re doing stuff that’s so niche and so exciting,” Walker-Webb said. “The theater is having this moment where it’s reinventing itself, and I want us to be at the fore of that conversation.”
Wesley Case is a Baltimore-based writer covering arts and entertainment.