Maria Broom, a former WJZ-TV news anchor and actress in prestige television shows “The Corner,” “The Wire,” and “The West Wing,” has been a steward of the arts in Baltimore for a long time. Two filmmakers are highlighting her efforts in a five-part documentary about her life. “Maria Broom: A Documentary,” was directed by two of her former students, Gaia Bethel-Birch and Ania Flanigan. They say that while the work is done, they need funding to help bring the film to audiences.
On a chilly late February afternoon, I had the honor of chatting with Maria. We’d met just after her last class of the day at the Baltimore School of the Arts. She was, in true dancer fashion, adorned in a colorful outfit that moved as easily as the wind. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, I was captured by how she holds herself and the pride with which she speaks of her artistry. She asked that she be referred to as Maria, so that is how she’ll be referred to for this story.
Maria was born in West Baltimore. She was six years old when she discovered she was an artist.
“My mother took me to The Lyric to see the Ballet Rousse de Monte Carlo, which is one of those last big ballets from Europe with huge sets and scenery with spectacular costumes,” she told me. “I remember we got the cheap seats down on the front row. I saw [those dancers] and was like, OK. These are my people. That is where I should be. Up there somewhere.”
Immediately after, she started studying dance at the YMCA on McCulloh Street. At age 13, she began attending the Peabody Institute, where she studied ballet and began exploring her interest in modern dance. She attended Morgan State University, and after graduation, she was offered a Fulbright Scholarship to study modern dance in Germany. Maria enthusiastically recalled her early education and the educators who encouraged her life path.
“I had a dance teacher, Sevalyn White, a Black woman. She was the one who told me, after she saw me do a solo, that if I wanted to be a professional dancer, I could. That’s all I needed to hear,” she said.
Maria’s commitment to living by faith has guided much of her life. After her Fulbright year studying dance, she was offered a chance as a lead dancer in the production of “Murderous Angel,” a play about the assassination of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. During that production, Maria met another dancer who invited her to see the musical “Hair.” In the middle of the show,, he rushed out from backstage to ask her to fill in for a dancer who had fallen sick. Despite not knowing the role—the choreography nor the lines in German—she agreed to cover for the night. As fate would have it, the original dancer never recovered, and soon Maria took over the role full-time. Her ability to be at the right place at the right time persisted.
After arriving back in the United States and taking a job as an airline stewardess, Maria was on a flight to Managua, Nicaragua, when, she recounts, “A news reporter and cameraman were interviewing the captain and the stewardess on duty—which was me—about these new X-ray detection devices. They liked my voice, and they had just lost their Black female reporter, [and asked] would I be interested in the job.” She auditioned for the position and got the job.
She worked in Miami at the ABC affiliate as a reporter for a year. But the urge to dance overshadowed her desire for the camera, and she soon returned to Baltimore. She interviewed at WJZ and was hired on the spot.
“I swear to goodness the guy said, ‘would you like to be a star?’ Next thing I knew, 120 billboards around Maryland said, ‘Viva Maria! Now Baltimore, you have someone to turn to,’” she said,
During that second year working as a reporter, she was asked to train a new hire—a young girl from Nashville, Tennessee. As fate would have it, the new hire happened to be none other than Oprah Winfrey. Maria said the two formed a friendship.
“Her birthday is the day after my mother’s, so we celebrate together. When I got married, she was one of my ladies in waiting,” she told me.
After four years of working for WJZ-TV, still, all Maria wanted to do was dance. She quit her job. She stopped eating meat. She stopped drinking alcohol.
Mondawmin Mall had just opened, so she rented a space in the basement and opened up her own dance studio. There she began living out her deepest dream: dance education. She fell into difficult financial times for several years.
“This is where she really begins to live off faith,” Bethel-Birch said.
Agnihotra is an Ayurvedic practice that involves offering ghee to the sacred fire at sunrise and sunset. Maria has devoted every sunrise and sunset to practicing Agnihotra. She also begins each of her performances and class with this ritual. Just as in her life, the Agnihotra fire is a central focus of the film. The fire is a symbol of her spirituality and faith. And ultimately, centering spirituality allows Maria to redefine success and live a life as a steward of artistic expression.
Her total turn to artistic expression has continuously opened doors for her. Her first role on screen was in the film “Clara’s Heart” with Whoopi Goldberg. Since then, she has played numerous other characters, appearing in every HBO show produced in Baltimore—including a recurring role on “The Wire” as Marla Daniels.
The directors are still looking for funding to wrap production costs, as well as an archivist. If you want to support the film or stay up-to-date with the project, visit www.mariabroomdocumentary.com or Maria Broom Documentary.