BALTIMORE — For an artist from another land, Kwame Kwei-Armah is sure making himself comfortable here quickly.
Just a few short months after arriving from London and taking over as artistic director of this city’s flagship theater, Centerstage, the British-born artistic director has announced that his first full season of plays will include one by himself — a piece posing a direct challenge to the racial portraiture of last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, “Clybourne Park.”
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.
On Tuesday, he will submit for Baltimore’s approval another aspect of his ambitions, as he unveils his first directorial effort as Centerstage’s leader: the local premiere of Matthew Lopez’s Civil War drama, “The Whipping Man,” the story of a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier who is cared for by two of his former slaves. (By coincidence, a Washington production, at Theater J, also begins performances this month.)
“He has reinvented himself a number of times,” says Stephen Richard, who came aboard two months ago as Centerstage’s managing director, responsible for the business and marketing operations of the company, which has a full-time staff of 80 and an annual budget of $7.1 million. He’d left the theater business a few years ago, after serving as Arena Stage’s managing director. It was the magnitude of Kwei-Armah’s brio that pulled him back through the doors.
“I’ve never had anyone work me under the table like him,” Richard says. “He sends me e-mails at 3 a.m.! And I see no sign of it becoming onerous.”
Kwei-Armah, born Ian Roberts, is the son of working-class parents from Grenada who settled in London’s Southall neighborhood; his father worked in a Quaker Oats factory for 40 years, and his mother was an auxiliary nurse who, he remarked, had “dreams bigger than Texas” for her children. (He felt a special affinity with her when, years later as an actor, he secured a long-running role as a paramedic on the BBC medical series “Casualty.”) He studied play writing at night while working on “Casualty” and became “hugely inspired” by African American writers, including playwright August Wilson.
So smitten was he that on a weekend whim, he flew to Washington to hear Wilson speak at the Smithsonian, then went that night to see a production of Wilson’s “King Hedley II” at the Kennedy Center. “In seeing ‘King Hedley,’ I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Kwei-Armah said. “I wanted to tell the black British story.”
“Elmina’s Kitchen,” a hit at the National Theatre in London in 2003, cemented Kwei-Armah’s unlikely transatlantic symbiosis with Centerstage. The U.S. debut of the play — the story of the implications of the dreams of an immigrant mother — was especially meaningful to Kwei-Armah because the director was Marion McClinton, who also had directed “Hedley.” In my review of “Elmina’s Kitchen” for the Washington Post, I wrote that the work, clearly influenced by Wilson, was “an absorbing exploration of a London subculture that is hardly ever dramatized.”
That he was a well-liked quantity in Baltimore certainly gave him a boost in the search to fill the city’s most influential theater job. Centerstage’s board had been pleasantly surprised when Kwei-Armah — a gregarious idea machine who does indeed exude bonhomie — declared himself seriously interested in the job that was vacated last year by Irene Lewis, a widely respected if taciturn sort who’d reigned at Centerstage for two decades.
“He was by far our first choice,” declared Jay Smith, board president. He was, then, an unorthodox first choice. That he’d spent his life in England and had little firsthand knowledge of the States — the first time he’d ever been aware of Baltimore was when he came to see “Hedley” — conferred on him the status of outsider.
But “when I got here, we slightly rebranded our theater to say, ‘Welcome to the Conversation,’ ” he said. “I think that’s right at the core of what I want to do next season. I want the plays to be about a civic personality. I think the theater must be a catalyst for debate. If you leave the theater and immediately start talking about your dinner plans, that’s a failure.”
Lewis bequeathed to her successor an institution in good fiscal shape but wincing from cuts and salary curbs, according to Richard. Although Centerstage still benefited from its patron support, the vitality of some of the city’s smaller theater companies had stolen some of its primacy, and artistically, it had seemed in recent years to lose some dynamism. While only a few years earlier Centerstage had staged Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s inflammatory antiwar drama, “The Murder of Isaac,” the offerings appeared to be becoming safer as subscribers trickled away. By the late 2000s, Centerstage was leading off its season with a chestnut even amateur companies shrink from, the sclerotic “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
The programming of Kwei-Armah’s first season won’t be revolutionary: He’s featuring Albee’s “A Delicate Balance”; a play about Baltimore favorite son Edgar Allan Poe; Katori Hall’s Martin Luther King play, “The Mountaintop”; Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People”; and a new play, “Mud Blue Sky,” about flight attendants in a hotel. He confessed that there was a new political play he’d fallen in love with and desperately wanted to stage, but since no one on his staff had any enthusiasm for the piece, he dropped it.
The season does feature some events that reflect the emphasis on writing that Kwei-Armah is intent on developing. In honor of Centerstage’s 50th anniversary, he’s commissioning 50 playwrights to each write a three-minute monologue on “My America.” Among those who’ve signed on are Neil LaBute, Anna Deavere Smith, Paula Vogel and Christopher Durang. Actors will be filmed performing the pieces, and the results will be projected in the lobby.
Richard thinks it’s a brilliant marketing tool. Kwei-Armah, who moved here with his wife and the youngest two of his four children, believes it’s a fine way to get to know the territory. “If I want to learn about my new adopted country, where do I go?” he asked. “I go to the artists.”
by Matthew Lopez. April 4-May 13 at Centerstage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.