In the insular and collegial-but-touchy world of American theater, his decision to stage both “Clybourne Park” and his as-yet-unwritten response play, “Beneatha’s Place,” is most assuredly not the norm. But the garrulous, opinionated, 45-year-old Kwei-Armah seems unwilling to let all of his passions take a back seat to his regard for artistic diplomacy. He was genuinely disturbed by aspects of “Clybourne,” playwright Bruce Norris’s examination of the way things evolve and remain the same over time in a racially changing Chicago neighborhood, modeled on the setting of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“I have a few issues with it. I’m not in any form hitting at Bruce,” he asserted the other day, as he talked about how he’s tackling his new job. He was troubled, he explained, by Norris’s depiction in “Clybourne” of a once-white neighborhood that had become black, and decrepit. It offered, Kwei-Armah declared, “the fundamental assertion that whites build and blacks destroy.”
Not many playwrights are chosen to run American theaters; in Washington, Theater J’s Ari Roth is the only writer at the helm of a prominent company. Intriguingly, right off the bat Kwei-Armah seems to be shifting the leadership paradigm at a major company, one that reveals his intense and complex relations with other writers. Was his decision revealing competitive feelings as well?
“Bruce said to me, ‘Are you trying to take me down?’ ” Kwei-Armah said, erupting in astonished laughter as he recounted the phone call in which he disclosed his idea of pairing the plays in his 2012-13 season. He’d tried to get other playwrights to compose a play taking on the Pulitzer winner, he said. “One of them said to me, ‘I think you’re being a coward by asking anyone else to do it. It’s your job.’ ” So there he had it.
“I’m actually doing it because I feel that I must,” he said, adding: “I’m petrified.”
You get the sense talking to Kwei- Armah, an actor-turned-playwright-turned-director-turned-artistic-director, that he might not feel completely alive if he weren’t experiencing a bit of terror; before arriving in Baltimore last summer he’d accepted — without any experience of such a vast enterprise — the job of organizing a pan-African arts festival for the West African nation of Senegal.
But Kwei-Armah also conveys an eagerness to bridge cultures and forge alliances; it was at Centerstage, in fact, in 2005 that his breakthrough play, “Elmina’s Kitchen,” had its U.S. debut and set him on the trajectory that led him to his new office on North Calvert Street.