Against a deep blue African sky, a majestic woman steals across the stage carrying a spear and the conscience of a nation. Lithe and sensuous, eloquent in every gesture, Maria Broom presents the mute, haunting presence of Mother Africa calling out to her children.
The Baltimore actor and dancer is making her Center Stage debut in "Les Blancs," Lorraine Hansberry's play about an imaginary African country on the brink of revolution. She plays a silent spirit visible only to the main character. She is a figure of tradition and obligation, of pain and promise, an expression of the stirrings of the heart.
Twenty years ago, Maria Broom was a celebrity of billboard-sized proportions, a member of Baltimore's first wave of media elite. In the 1970s, the Baltimore native was a member of the legendary WJZ news team that included Jerry Turner, Al Sanders, Nick Charles and Bob Turk. Her mission was to become a consumer's best friend: She asked your questions, solved your problems and gave you useful information every night live on the 5: 30 and 6: 30 nightly news.
When she left television in 1977, Maria Broom was 28 years old. She had more celebrity in her hometown than she'd ever imagined. Bigger stations around the country were calling. She was a bona fide role model.
But she had reached the moment of confrontation with her own spirit.
"It was simply that case of 'Are you going to do what you said
you always wanted to do?' " she says.
Dancing and acting
Maria Broom is sitting in the Pearlstone Theater, awaiting a final rehearsal of "Les Blancs," which opened last week and runs through Feb. 1. Her role requires more acting than dancing, she says, and calls upon all of her personal experience and performing skills.
"You have to wait for God's good timing, the gift that is for you specifically," she says. "And this role truly is. What I like best is to use dance as an actress, but how many times do you get a part that calls for a dramatic solo dancer who is a character?"
At 48, Maria is respected as performer and instructor -- she teaches at the Park School and the School for the Arts. She's also a person who has embraced her opportunities as she once did television audiences: as her newest old friends.
Her tale as a performer begins when she was 6, the year her mother took her to a performance of the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo at the Lyric. Immediately smitten, she developed her dance skills under teachers Gwen Biddle, Vernice Matthews and Dale Sehnert. But it was Sevalyn White, a dancer still teaching at Western High School, who set Broom's sights. After watching Maria perform a solo to jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan's piece "Feeling Good," White pulled the teen-ager aside.
"She said, 'Maria, you could be a dancer if you wanted to be,' " Broom recalls. "Everyone needs to hear from someone important: 'You've got the goods to do this.' And that's all I needed."
At 16, she graduated from Western and entered Morgan State University, where she pursued dance and theater.
Although she received her college degree in elementary education -- there were no dance majors at Morgan -- she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study dance in Berlin in 1970. She studied there for a year, ending her stay by touring with the German cast of "Hair."
The next step was more travel. After she returned to the United States fluent in several languages, Broom became a Pan Am stewardess based in Miami, flying primarily to Central and South America.
Then television found her. One day, a local Miami station interviewed the young flight attendant for a story about the first X-ray detection devices for baggage. The news director was so taken with Broom's poise and delivery that he asked her to audition for a job at the Miami station.
"I told them, 'I don't know much about television and journalism, I'm a dancer working as a stewardess!' " she recalls. "But they offered me a job."
Her first story, a piece about the public groundswell to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, ran in January 1973.
Well-received, she began to develop her skills as a cultural-arts reporter.
But after a year, she could no longer ignore the itch to dance.
She returned to Baltimore, hoping to be hired as head of the dance department at Morgan. When she discovered she lacked the necessary degree in physical education, her friends suggested she look into local TV until something in dance opened up.
'The Public Defender'
"Channel 11 basically said, 'Don't call us,' and Channel 13 said, 'Whoa! How would you like ... ' They created this program for me called 'The Public Defender' and put my face up on these big billboards. I hit right at the first season when they did all this major advertising of our on-air people."
There's a tone of wonder in her soft voice as she tells the story. You can tell it still surprises her, too.