Maia, a young black performer, stands on stage at a microphone, as if she is competing in a spelling bee
Maia Campbell as Olive in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." (Photo/Reed Flores-Courtesy TheatreWorks)

23-year-old actor made leap from camp talent show to local stages

During her first summer at Camp Be’chol Lashon, Maia Campbell was a shy 8-year-old with glasses and long braids. After a week of swimming, crafting and learning about Jewish communities around the world, the campers staged a talent show. One did a dance routine. One told jokes.

When Maia walked to the front of the room, everyone got quiet. Nobody was prepared for what happened next.

“She unexpectedly brought the house down belting out ‘Broadway Baby,’” recalled Diane Tobin, the founder of Be’chol Lashon, the San Francisco-based Jewish diversity nonprofit that runs an annual summer camp for Jewish kids of color at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma.

Now 23, Campbell is no longer a “baby” who is “learning how to sing and dance, waiting for that one big chance to be in a show,” as Stephen Sondheim wrote in his classic song from “Follies.” This year, the San Francisco native has acted in several local productions, including “Kinky Boots” at Berkeley Playhouse and “Spring Awakening” at Ray of Light Theatre. Next up, she is starring in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which runs Nov. 29 to Dec. 24 at Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

“As a girl with frizzy hair and a mustache, being onstage was an outlet for me to kind of get outside of my self-consciousness,” she said by phone during a rehearsal break earlier this month. “It’s still very liberating for me to be somebody else for a little bit. I don’t get stage fright. It’s like: Ah, now I can relax.”

Campbell comes from a multicultural and musical family who belonged for a time to Or Shalom Jewish Community in S.F. Her Jewish parents — Marcella White Campbell, a Black writer who worked at Be’chol Lashon for seven years, and Greg Campbell, a white software engineer — met as Stanford undergraduates in The Harmonics a cappella group. They played the soundtracks for “Annie” and other musicals in their Sunset District home while raising Campbell and her younger brother, Noah.

Her first acting gig came in second grade, when she played a young Cinderella in an African-American Shakespeare Company production. She studied voice and piano and took classes at American Conservatory Theater. She also acted while a student at International High School, playing Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” In 2017, she participated in an intensive musical theater program for high school students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Sometimes, a performer walks in and just has it.

When it came time to apply to college, though, she decided to pursue her other passion: physics. She enrolled at MIT but couldn’t stay away from the stage. As a freshman, she joined the student musical theater guild and played the lead role of Elle Woods in a 2018 production of “Legally Blonde.”

“It was just, like, a really fun outlet while being at this very stressful school,” she said. “I was probably doing a bit more theater than homework.”

After the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted her sophomore year, she decided to take a leave of absence and pursue “this thing that’s always been kind of my secret dream, or not-so-secret dream,” she said.

Since returning to the Bay Area, she has had small roles in several shows while taking theater classes at San Francisco State University. In “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a 2005 Tony winner for best book (Rachel Sheinkin), Campbell plays an introverted middle school contestant, Olive Ostrovsky.

“Spelling is a way for her to break out of her shell, so it’s kind of reminiscent of how I felt when I was younger,” Campbell said. She described the show “as funny without being mean.” (At each performance, a few audience members will be chosen to go onstage and participate in the bee.)

James Monroe Iglehart, a Broadway actor (“Aladdin,” “Memphis,” “Hamilton”) who grew up in Hayward and serves as creative producer for this staging of “Spelling Bee,” said he was struck by Campbell’s “authentic shyness” during her audition.

“Sometimes, a performer walks in and just has IT,” he said in an email to J. “Maia was that performer. I am so excited she is playing this part!”

Campbell said she plans to return to MIT in the spring, this time as a theater major. And after she graduates? “Who knows?” she said about a possible acting career. “I’m still young.”

Iglehart said she has what it takes to succeed in the Bay Area theater scene and beyond.

“She has all the artistic skills she needs to have a great career,” he said. “All she needs to do is make a decision that is exactly what she wants, focus on it and go for it.”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

Nov. 29 to Dec. 24 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto. Post-show discussions with cast on Dec. 6 and 20. Tickets start at $27.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.