Kwame Kwei-Armah knows Baltimore. In fact, he knows it much better than you'd expect a transplanted Brit would. In fact, Kwei-Armah, who's just starting his new gig as Centerstage artistic director, has already forged a deep connection to the city, and that connection is driving his plans for reshaping the theater.
Kwei-Armah strides into an upstairs conference room at Centerstage, holding a bottle of fruit juice and flashing a smile. A few hours earlier, he and his family—his wife and three of his four children—arrived from London to go house hunting, and he looks remarkably fresh and alert for someone who's just stepped off a trans-Atlantic flight. "I was here a few weeks ago, and I just stayed on Baltimore time when I went back to London," he explains.
Thinking back on his first impressions of Baltimore, Kwei-Armah chuckles. "At first, I didn't really know where it was," he says. "And neither did anyone else that I mentioned it to in Britain. Later on, I'd say, 'It's down of New York, to the right of D.C.'—I always had to define it in terms of somewhere else. But that all changed after The Wire came out. And everybody went, 'Are you going to be safe? Will you be shot?'"
He chuckles again. "I tell people that I haven't really seen that part, but I've gotten glimpses," he says. "The problems in Baltimore are similar, in some ways, to the problems I've seen in London. I know it sounds a bit fuzzy wuzzy, but that sort of recognition helped give me a very strong feeling about this place."
Baltimore got its first glimpse of Kwei-Armah in 2005, when a play he'd written, Elmina's Kitchen, came to Centerstage after an incredibly successful run at Britain's National Theatre. The play—which is set in a West Indian restaurant and deals with family, race, and violence in an urban community—won several awards and established Kwei-Armah as a presence in the international theater scene.
A reviewer for the London Theatre Guide praised its "carefully balanced and well-crafted script" that "skillfully weaves into the play much of what is rich about black culture." The critic also noted the audience's "strong and emotionally charged reception" and suggested that the play "ought to be doing the rounds of schools and youth clubs, or even performed in the streets as well."
As it turned out, those were the rounds Kwei-Armah made during the play's Centerstage run. "I did quite a lot of community work at that time, and Baltimore struck me quite hard at the heart," he recalls. "We went into schools, prisons, juvenile prisons, and community centers for workshops and talks. Centerstage's education department really got me out there talking to all types of people."
He also took a daily walk around the city so he could "take in the vibe and think." During one of those walks, he spotted the Mechanic Theater and got a strong sense of déjà vu. Then, something hit him "like a bomb," he says. "I had written the first scenes of Elmina's Kitchen—the very play I was doing here—in Baltimore. I had completely forgotten that I'd actually come here once before."
In 2001, Kwei-Armah, while in Washington, D.C., to see August Wilson's King Hedley II at the Kennedy Center, made an impulsive side-trip to Baltimore to see Ragtime at the Mechanic. He was so inspired by the trip—and by Wilson's play, in particular—that he started writing Elmina's Kitchen, that night, in his hotel room. "At that point, it was set in a barber store, not in a kitchen," he says. "The scene I wrote that night never made it into the production in Britain, but, oddly enough, it did make it into the Centerstage production."
The next morning, Kwei-Armah visited the Great Blacks In Wax Museum, took the train back to D.C., and caught his flight back to London. "I was only here for a day, really, but it changed my life," he says. "I had this instant rapport with Baltimore. It felt like home."
Kwei-Armah was born in London in 1966, after his parents moved from Grenada to find work. The eldest of three children, he grew up in Southall at a time when its Caribbean and South Asian populations were rising steadily. The neighborhood was diverse, but the immigrants weren't so popular with the locals, especially the skinheads, who were prone to violence.
"White youth culture at the time saw people of color as foreign aliens," says Kwei-Armah, "and they would chase and stab people and all of that stuff. One had to have a kind of guarded personality in order to deal with that world and get through. That was the outside world, and it was quite fragile."
By contrast, Kwei-Armah's home life, his "inside world," was sturdy and safe. "Our home was brilliant, lively, noisy, fractious, and loving," he says, eyes sparkling. "Debate was everything, and you couldn't be a slouch."
At the age of 16, he declared that he was "a universal alien," which ignited a lively discussion. But basically, he was defining himself as tri-cultural—Caribbean, British, and African—and proclaiming to be "a citizen of the world." It was an important moment, one that's continued to resonate and influence his approach to his work. "I am naturally outward facing," he says. "I am fed by what is happening out there in the world and how I engage with various institutions. That's all part of my raison d'être."
It's one of the things that made him an attractive candidate for the Centerstage job, after the theater's board of directors announced last year that longtime artistic director Irene Lewis was leaving. Traditionally, the managing director has been the "face" of Centerstage, with the likes of Peter Culman and Michael Ross out and about, engaging with other organizations, and wooing donors, while Lewis hunkered down at the theater. Over time, that led to the perception that Lewis was too insular or disengaged from the community—although she's roundly lauded for significantly increasing Centerstage's African-American audience during her tenure.
So the board felt the new artistic director should be the face of the organization, and Jed Dietz, who headed the search for Lewis's replacement, cites the BSO's Marin Alsop, The BMA's Doreen Bolger, The Walters's Gary Vikan, and AVAM's Recebba Hoffberger as examples. "That was huge for us," says Dietz, who notes that the search committee considered more than 100 candidates and pared that list to 13, eight, and then four finalists before making a final selection.
Dietz says Kwei-Armah's exuberance, affection for Baltimore, and range of experiences were deciding factors. He plucks a few highlights off Kwei-Armah's impresive résumé: writing, directing, and acting on the stage; serving on the board of Britain's National Theatre; organizing the World Festival of Black Arts in Senegal; appearing regularly on BBC TV; and even recording a CD of soul classics such as "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Let's Stay Together."
"He's a game changer, and he's going to be a huge addition to this community," says Dietz.
Irene Lewis agrees. As part of the selection process, she interviewed the four finalists and evaluated their strengths and weaknesses for the board, but didn't ultimately make any recommendations. Still, she's obviously pleased Kwei-Armah got the job. "Centerstage is extraordinarily fortunate to get him, and so is the city," she says. "There's no telling how much he'll accomplish, because he does so many things. But one thing's certain—it's going to be different, because, like me, Kwame doesn't like to repeat himself."
When asked about his plans for the theater, Kwei-Armah is surprisingly specific for someone so new to the job. "I want to make 50 percent of our output new work," he says. "Nothing is written in stone—it's a work in progress—but I think it's really important. To that end, I want to get work from four playwrights—one marquee, two mid-career, and one brand new, maybe someone just out of grad school. And I'm going to commission a play that's going to talk to me about contemporary America.
"My aim is to serve this theater—systemically, locally, nationally, and internationally. If it's a leading theater in America, it's important that we address some of the systemic issues. Irene did that by tackling the diversity in the audience. I want to do it by making my bias—and I do say bias, not a dictate—toward the female playwright and the female theatrical practitioner. Of those new plays, I want that female bias. That doesn't mean that it's necessarily written in blood, but if it's neck and neck, I'm going to lean toward the female playwright."
The other 50 percent of his first season will be classics, and he lists Ibsen's The Enemy of the People and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard among his favorites. He also mentions possibly doing a South African musical, which he declines to name, as a Christmas show and mounting productions outside the theater at green spaces and historic sites.
And he plans to schedule "monologue slams" for locals to showcase their skills, "so I can see what they can do," he says. "If you're from Baltimore, I want you to come into this building and know that it's yours. That way, there isn't a perception that Baltimore actors don't get onto the main stage here. I want to smash that as a perception."
Similarly, Kwei-Armah says he'd like Centerstage to become a hive of activity that's open to everyone, not just theatergoers. "I want to make sure that Centerstage isn't seen as some sort of castle on the hill," he says. "Rather, it should be seen as this interactive institution that feeds and gives and thrives on that. I realize that it is a palace of entertainment, but at its core, it needs to serve its community."
He envisions a lobby filled with people before a show. And after the show starts, the lobby is still filled with people, who, he says, "are just chilling and want to talk about art. I want this place to be an art destination."
The same goes for Baltimore. "Let's market Baltimore beyond being a place to come and eat crabs," he says. "We want to pull people from New York and D.C. for an art weekend. 'Come to Baltimore and see a play, go to the BSO, and take in some world class art.'
"I want to be part of something that redefines Baltimore, outside of The Wire. Yes, The Wire is one of the best TV shows ever made, and it's magnificent and brilliant. But people tend to stick to the bad and define Baltimore by those things. That's part of it, but it's not all of it. There's some great art going on here, with a lot more to come. We should tell the world about it."