Hana Sharif will succeed Molly Smith as the Arena Stage’s first Black artistic director. (Photo by Cheshire Isaac, courtesy of Arena Stage)

By Adriana Navarro,
Special to the AFRO

Hana Sharif builds worlds for a living. With the eye of a museum curator, she carefully selects the stories that will play out within them and the truths they will display.

She practiced crafting narratives for five years at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis (The Rep) as the artistic director. Sharif, 45, will continue to hone her craft under the same title at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. 

It’s a stage that Sharif’s 19-year-old self had said she would run one day after learning of its reputation and of the legendary work of its first artistic director, Zelda Fichandler. 

“When I looked at the landscape of who was doing really interesting and engaging work at the time, when I looked at the landscape of what cities I thought I could have a real impact in and which institutions were really hallmarks for the quality of work that I wanted to do, there were only a handful of theaters that really checked all of those boxes for me,” Sharif said.

Sharif is succeeded by Molly Smith, who served in the role of artistic director of Arena Stage for more than two decades.

“For the last 25 years, I have held magic in my hands,” Smith shared in a press release from Arena Stage. “From the first moment 25 years ago, when I came to Arena, I was blessed with a top-notch production staff and dynamic administration. We can create anything, and we have…we’ve changed America along the way. Now, it’s time to pass that magic on to the next generation—to Hana. I know her magic will be mesmerizing and I, for one, will be cheering from the audience.”

When Sharif joined the Rep in St. Louis, she became not only the company’s first Black woman to lead the theater, but the first Black woman in the country to lead a major regional theater. 

She will now also be Arena Stage’s first Black woman to serve as artistic director, breaking yet another glass ceiling. Deconstructing racial barriers is nothing new for the theater as Arena Stage was also the District’s first fully integrated theater after its founding in 1950. 

Through years of experience in leadership and numerous awards under her belt, Sharif has ascended to the role she had set her sights on when first starting out in the theater industry. And while she had climbed the ladder to the top, Sharif emphasized she was not the only one who had cleared her path.

“It’s really bittersweet, right? It is wonderful to break through a glass ceiling, but I recognize that there were a thousand women who came before me who should have come through that ceiling, but couldn’t,” Sharif said. “That’s the only reason I made it through the ceilings is because their bodies slamming against the ceiling caused enough fractures for me to be able to come through.”

The role of artistic director is akin to the role of a CEO at a large company, according to Sharif. There’s everything that comes with running a business, including marketing and fundraising.

It also means she’s the lead artist for the institute, playing a role in directing and creating the framework in which a playwright’s story will be told on stage.

“In the same way that a museum curator would curate the exhibit in the art that you’re seeing, part of my job is to select the shows, to put together the creative teams, the directors, the designers, to confirm the actors,” Sharif explained. “I work with the directors to hire the actors, but we build the worlds that you get to see.”

Now, she looks to build on the legacy of those who came before her. 

Sharif has worked as an artistic director, a director, a producer and a playwright over the course of her career. And while her role in the theater has changed over time, her mission of holding space for artists has stayed the same.

“My job is to hold this space open, to create pipelines, so that when I step away it doesn’t close back,” Sharif said. “There are 10 of us in a line, that the pipeline is wider, that the space is wider and richer, and not because of any particular intersectionality, but because when we are actually able to have a range of experiences of life, experience of stories told, of skill set. We are stronger, we are better, we are more human, we are more evolved.”

Sharif got her start in the theater industry at Spelman College in Atlanta. After graduating, she and her friends founded their own theater company, Nassir Productions. Through her company, she was able to make plays that spoke to her and her existence, she proclaimed. 

She began to build worlds. And in these worlds, she ensured that the life experiences of people who media typically doesn’t focus on have a place to breathe. 

“The media has a lot of control over the images we see, and what we begin to understand and normalize,” Sharif said. But the stories, the nuances of her life and the things that existed in the intersectionality of her being were not reflected with the complexity that she wanted to see,” she said.

Nassir Productions ran from 1997 to 2004, during which Sharif sharpened the skills she would need for the next stage of her career from doing graduate work at the University of Houston to writing plays to raising money for the shows.

It’s knowledge she used throughout her career, garnering several notable awards. Among them are the United States Institute for Theater Technology’s 2023 Distinguished Achievement Award for Management and Spelman College’s 2022 National Community Service Award. She also was the recipient of the Theater Communications Group’s New Generations Fellowship and the Aetna New Voices Fellowship.

Looking ahead to Sharif’s position at Arena Stage, the company’s executive producer, Edgar Dobie, shared that he looks forward to the new artistic relationships she will bring and the “big tent view she brings” to the enterprise.

Teresa Sapien, the associate artistic director of Arena Stage, will work alongside Sharif as she steps into her new role.

“My first impression of Hana was that she always wants to dig deeper into a problem and is very good at asking questions that help get to [the] bones of the situation,” Sapien said in an email. “She calls people to the table, listens intently, and is not easily duped because, again, she isn’t distracted by surfaces and instead labors to get at the substance of things. She is an artistic producer who insists upon collaboration and seeks out partners in brainstorming and implementation.”

Theater, for Sharif, is a powerful and healthy tool for understanding how life evolves.

“You spend all of this time to build a world. You spend time to tell the story, to find the truth, to find the connections. Hours and hours and hours, and heart and tears, and all this energy goes into building a thing,” Sharif said.

“Some of these worlds persist for months, but for the most part, they are ephemeral. They end when the curtain falls. And then you release it to let it become what it’s supposed to be. It plays for a month or two depending on your theater, and then it closes. And that moment of time is so ephemeral, you can’t ever recapture that moment.”