Adding to the churn of artistic directors leaving posts at area regional theaters, Baltimore Center Stage unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that its artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, will not return when his contract expires in June 2018.
The theater unveiled its $28 million renovated space just this February, an initiative spearheaded by Kwei-Armah.
“There’s a British model which kind of says once you renovate a building and set things up, that’s the time to go,” Kwei-Armah said by phone late Tuesday afternoon.
The decision was “entirely” his, Kwei-Armah says, adding that the company’s financial health is strong. “No hidden reasons,” he says of the decision, which he announced to the board Monday.
The British-born playwright-director took the Baltimore job in 2011, replacing longtime artistic director Irene Lewis. Kwei-Armah, 50, put his dramatist’s stamp on the institution in his first full season with “Beneatha’s Place,” an original play replying to the Pulitzer-winning Bruce Norris drama “Clybourne Park” (based on Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”). PBS-TV chronicled Kwei-Armah’s project.
The Bob Marley estate granted Kwei-Armah the rights to the famed reggae singer’s songs, and in 2015 Kwei-Armah wrote and directed the premiere of the bio-musical “Marley.” The show set box-office records for Center Stage; Kwei-Armah reworked and retitled it “One Love” this spring as it played England’s Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
The 2017-18 season will end with an original new play with music by Kwei-Armah that is still untitled (even the subject has not been announced). He hopes to plan the 2018-19 season with his successor, if a replacement can be found in time.
One of the criticisms of Lewis as she left was that as a Manhattan resident, she spent little time in Baltimore as the face of the troupe. Kwei-Armah was aggressively present when he started, but he also has directed shows in New York, and directed the British premieres of not only “One Love,” but also the Kemp Powers drama “One Night in Miami” last year after its East Coast debut at Center Stage. This fall he’ll direct Henrik Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea” for London’s Donmar Warehouse.
“Every time I’ve been out, on the whole, it’s been in the service of Center Stage,” says Kwei-Armah, whose bio includes acting on a BBC-TV series before arriving in Baltimore. “It raises the profile of the theater, and there are revenue streams. And I worked really hard when I was away.”
The announcement follows the news that Howard Shalwitz will leave Woolly Mammoth next spring and that Michael Kahn will step down as head of the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the end of 2018-19. Kwei-Armah does not rule out running another troupe, but says now all plans are up in the air — even whether to stay in the United States or return to England.
“If a big writing project happens, great. If a beautiful directing gig comes, great,” Kwei-Armah says. “And I hope I can pay the mortgage.”