The creative force known as Kwame Kwei-Armah on heading CenterStage

Baltimore inspired him, and now he intends to return the favor.

“Cool. Savvy.” That branding for the 2011-2012 season dangles outside the CenterStage theater on Calvert Street in Baltimore. It’s cut and pasted from an enthusiastic Washington Post review of last season’s ReEntry. Presumably, the idea was that even for those outside the Baltimore Beltway, CenterStage is, savvy.

Kwame Kwei-Armah (Photo: Courtesy of CenterStage)

In the still-pristene office of CenterStage’s new Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, just to trip him up early on, I’m on the verge of asking him how savoir-faire even using the word ‘savvy’ was. But before I can, he reaches over and grabbed a new pamphlet for the 2011-2012 season from his desk. One important change. The words savvy… cool have vanished. Now there’s a new phrase: Welcome to the Conversation.

That’s how CenterStage’s new artistic director hopes to put his stamp on Baltimore’s regional theater. “And that’s what I want this institution to be in my tenure. I want it to be a catalyst of the word. I want it to be a catalyst for both artistic and civic [conversations].”

If you want to be savvy and cool, head north.

Kwame’s predecessor, Irene Lewis, did that a lot, and last year, the Center Stage Board of Directors brought her 19 year tenure as artistic director to a halt. The Sun’s arts writer, in a farewell piece, tagged her as a commuter in a city painfully conscious of its position vis a vis the I-95 exit ramp. New York, almost exclusively, was where most of her actors came from. And New York City was where she lived.

Kwame, for his part, is an unconditional admirer of Lewis, and gives her plenty of credit for the steps she’s taken to diversify CenterStage’s audience. But he’s also aware that, for the moment, if he’s going to get along, his mailing address needs to be in Charm City. And he has to be a little more…er…media friendly than his predecessor was. If that involves being interviewed by Baltimore Style while duckpin bowling in a porkpie hat and getting handed a six-pack of National Bohemian, so be it. Welcome to the conversation.

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British-born, with a Carribean and African background, and a career as an actor and playwright, Kwame doesn’t fit easily into the Baltimore mold. But the relationship goes back a decade. His first visit to Baltimore came in 2001, when he visited Baltimore on a whim, during a trip to D.C. Back then, he was a nationally recognized actor in the ER-styled British television series “Casualty.” His playwriting career was getting into gear. He remembers in his few days in Baltimore, he began to work on a new play about West Indian emigres in the gritty London neighborhood of Hackney, where he grew up.

(l-r) Thomas Jefferson Boyd and Curtis McClarin in the CenterStage production of Elmina's Kitchen

That turned into Elmina’s Kitchen, which enjoyed a hit run on London’s West End and a BBC production. By 2005, his reputation as Britain’s emerging black playwright had spread to U.S. shores. In 2005, dramaturg Gavin Witt caught the buzz of Elmina’s Kitchen and Lewis and Witt persuaded Kwame to premier it in the town where he’d begun writing it. “I had a pretty good time with that play,” Kwame says. “I did a lot of work with the groups and the city.”

Then the director fell ill. And Kwame stepped in to direct his own play. “And Irene [Lewis] and Gavin said, ‘You do that well.’” So he moved on to direct Naomi Wallace’s Things of Dry Hours, a play set in 1932, Alabama’s interracial Communist Party. ‘Which was brilliant, and I had a brilliant time.’”

Kwame returned once more to Baltimore in 2009 with Let There Be Love, a play about generation gaps in the immigrant community starring Avery Brooks. “And then I heard that Irene was moving on. And a couple of people called me and said I should put my hand in the ring.”

Avery Brooks and Gretchen Hall in the CenterStage production of Let There Be Love

“So I did. And eighteen interviews later, here I am. I have no idea how I did it. Except to say that I’ve never been interviewed so many times in my life.” The more he got interviewed, the more he wanted the job. “It’s never been on my to-do list. And certainly, you can imagine, it’s never been to be an artistic director in a foreign land. But when the job became available, I began to think, well, this would be a wonderful extension of my learning as an artist. Extending my [mission] as a writer, which is to be a catalyst for a debate. It was certainly my raison d’être as a writer. And now as an artistic director…”

CenterStage, like most Baltimore arts institutions, has had to deal with lower budgets and shifting audiences. A few doors over from his office is the managing director’s office — occupied until last year by Debbie Chinn, whose high-visibility campaign to keep CenterStage in the black through two tough years of budget cuts made her more of a media presence than Irene Lewis. With the opening of the 2011 season, that office is still vacant. When asked about the office, Kwame shrugs. “For the moment…I guess you could call me the managing director.”

The search is still on, but right now “the buck stops here.” Kwame will be juggling a few more roles: public face, community liason, strategist, and advocate. He’s been given the chance to add one play to cap off the 2011-2012: Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, which Kwame will direct. He has also replaced Jazz with Gleam, a play by Bonnie Rattner, based on Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. (Jazz, he says, which is being adapted from the Toni Morrison novel for the stage by Center Stage associate artist Marion McClinton, will return to the schedule after a little more development.)

It’s clear that there’s one thing he’s not going to be, it’s a shrinking violet. That should be fine with the CenterStage Board of Directors, who were clearly interested in a more outgoing presence at the helm of CenterStage. They may have taken their cue from the Baltimore Symphony, which fought back against declining subscriptions and a recession by hiring the charismatic and visible conductor Marin Alsop as musical director in 2007.

Kwame’s English accent, Carribean/African roots, and youthful enthusiasm may overshadow the most daring element of the Board of Director’s choice. He’s a playwright. By his own count, there’s one — maybe two — regional artistic directors in the country with that on their resume.

“Yes, it is a bold decision. To put an artist at the helm rather than a stage director. That’s been the traditional route. I’m aware of that. I’ve been an actor – I am an actor – but as a writer I know what it’s like to have to listen to people and hate what they say and yet know that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And I’ve been a director. So being able to say I’ve been through most of the departments on the artistic side, I think there’s an understanding and a desire to make this a very artist-centric place. Not to say that it wasn’t before. I really want to be able to say to other artists, ‘come here and play.’”

Kwame also acknowledges that CenterStage isn’t necessarily a place where professional playwrights immediately think of when they want to show new work. “I’m aware of that perception,” he says. “And I want to counter that perception. When I came here [in 2006], there wasn’t a feeling that they didn’t want new playwrights. It was that there wasn’t really a program to make that happen.”

Among his boldest goals is one that could easily give an aging Board of Director member heartburn: a season with 50 % new plays. He admits that it may not be easy to achieve. In the subscription base that theatres like CenterStage rely on, that may be a struggle. He’s out to change that. People come here “because they know the titles [of the plays.] I want to make them understand that they want to come here because of the fifty per cent that they know and the ones that they don’t. I’m going for that. It’s my ambition. It’s my aim. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. That’s what I’m aiming for. Then again, if I can’t find three good new plays in a season, then I won’t do it.”

As a writer, he hopes to improve the relationship between American artists and managing directors. “The only thing that I’ve concentrated on…is creating work for living playwrights. By creating workshops. By developing houses like ‘Playwrights Sector’ in Minneapolis, where they’re forging relationships so that their writers are not just writing in a vacuum. So that the best of those can be fed to me.

And literally, from the moment we start developing it, we know it’s going to be produced, rather than a writer just going through a perpetual reading hell. So I’m setting up those engines so that that can happen. So that’s been the sole way that I’ve thought about influencing the relationships. To create these structures that allow a playwright to develop a play and know it’s going to have a life. But I haven’t re-invented any new structural template at all.”

One word keeps cropping up: space. “One thing that completely transformed me was at the National Theatre Studio. [where his play Elmina's Kitchen premiered]. The National Theatre Studio allowed me a space to think. It allowed me access to actors to read my work. And great minds to help me to deal with some of the problems. That was the single greatest factor in my mind.”

Under his tenure, CenterStage will do the same for others. “I’m trying to find a way to maybe get a ‘hot desk’ in here, so that a writer, or one working on one of our scenes, can just write out of one of our rooms. And to be able to get access to us. Just to see how things work out. Just to have the space.”

When he has a little free time, meanwhile, Kwame is going to be writing his own work. That seems to bring things full circle. He started Elmina’s Kitchen in 2001 here. Now he’s back in Baltimore.

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I ask him how he writes plays.

“I tend to have a political idea. Then I try to bury it into the body of the text and of the character. It’s all a driver for that.” With his play, Let There Be Love, he says, he started out with the idea. “I felt that there was a generation of a people of color who had completely changed the landscape around the theme of immigration. So there was a new influx of people coming into Britain…who didn’t know about the battles that had been fought on their behalf…Those were the drivers. Then I had to find characters that allowed me to investigate that theme.”

As a writer, Kwame says he’s fascinated with generational and political differences. “In Britain, it’s quite different from in America. Where the American identity transforms by the time you get to the second generation. In Britain, it doesn’t happen even by the time you get to the third or the fourth. They’re still hanging on to an identity that belongs to their grandparents. So yes, it’s a very fascinating juxtaposition for me being here in a society that kind of instantly switches to being an American. So, yes, generational progression or retrogression are things that I find quite fascinating.”

He finds immigrant communities in Baltimore to be a lot different. “They become American very quickly. But it doesn’t take long to scratch beneath the surface. In England, you’d be like, ‘where you from?’ I’d say from Barbados, or Grenada, or Jamaica. Here, it’s ‘where are you from?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m an American.’ And then you’ve got to go beneath the surface…”

“My parents had the pseudo British mentality of an Islander who was old and colonized. And it’s, kind of, freeze-frame, 1950’s, in their morality and their thinking and their behavior. But those who have been here, who’ve come here in the last twenty years, it’s completely different. It’s a different America than it was in the 1950’s. So I find it very fascinating. And of course I want to write a play about it.”

It’s difficult to talk to anyone outside about Baltimore without mentioning “The Wire,” and Kwame didn’t start watching it until recently. However, then he was hooked – along with a large sector of the British cable-watching population. “I didn’t watch “The Wire” until I got my job. Even though I knew some of the actors [among them, Idris Elba, the British actor who played Stringer Bell], and they’re very good friends of mine. So what I think…I adore David Simon’s writing soul, and I think that’s what people like about him. He’s a man with soul, and he’s someone who wanted to say something, and said it brilliantly.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, he understands that for a city like Baltimore, fame is a mixed blessing. “Of course, one of the byproducts [of "The Wire"] is that now Baltimore’s a byword for ‘bad.’ And that’s part of why I came here. Yes, that’s Baltimore. But that’s not all Baltimore is. And I feel kind of evangelical about that. That there’s so much more.”

Kwame Kwei-Armah and CenterStage exterior (both photos courtesy of CenterStage)

As a resident now of north Baltimore’s Roland Park, he says, he understands how segregated Baltimore is. “There are probably more people now in Roland Park who understand how Baltimore works by “The Wire” than by going there to find it out.”

When I ask how he’s going to change that, he answers quickly. “Well, Irene Lewis did it. I don’t have that much work to do, because Irene invested so much into the African American community. Do I need to attract more people from across all demographics? Yes I do. But part of the reason I decided to come here [as Artistic Director] was that when I came here to watch The Homecoming, one third of the audience was black. That wouldn’t happen in Britain, and Pinter is one of our heroes.”

But he does say that he’d like to focus on increasing work by women playwrights. “That’s one of the deficits. If that’s what I want to look at, it’s there.”

As an artist, though, Kwame doesn’t consider diversity an end in itself. “Our job as artists is to treat the world that we’ve come into with integrity. Otherwise, we’re bastardizing other cultures so that we can be looked upon as access for others who may be more economically empowered. There’s no honor in that. But there is honor in explaining a way of life, or explaining a dysfunction, or explaining a morality, or exposing or helping enter into a world that makes you understand human nature in a way that you may never have before.”

So let’s assume that budding playwrights in Baltimore are overwhelmed by “The Wire” and a little sick of John Waters. Thanks to CenterStage and Irene Lewis, over the last decade, they’ve seen every single play from August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Where would he go for material?

He’d step right outside the theater and head for Baltimore’s own Washington Monument. “Mount Vernon. It’s a cultural district. There’s exploring and importing and exporting the world. And directly next to it is the prison. I find that an interesting juxtaposition.” In addition to his other jobs, Kwame intends to keep pumping out plays, hopefully at a rate of one per year.

“As you probably know, at the corner of the street across from the prison. Many of the prisoners who have girlfriends who stand on the corner and dance on a Friday night. And they just stand there, dancing. I just find that fascinating. That’s not saying that I’m looking for stories about the underclass. Particularly black stories, I can say I’m less interested in inner city stories. It’d have to be absolutely amazing for me to do an inner city, crime black story. That’s probably the furthest away from what I’m interested.”

Irene Lewis looked towards New York. Kwame makes it clear that he’ll also be looking South. Next week, he’s going to be co-hosting a discussion at Studio Theatre with David Muse (Studio’s young Artistic Director) about A Habit of Art by Alan Bennett (another British playwright.

Next week, he’s going to Arena Stage to see Trouble in Mind, directed by Irene Lewis. He wants to help close the gap between the theater worlds of Baltimore and DC.Despite 50 miles of I-95, he says, culturally, he consider’s Baltimore and DC joined at the hip. “It’s kind of close. We should be going to see one another’s works.”

Part of that, he admits, would involve making Baltimore a destination, and not just a theatrical thoroughfare. That’s a big vision, but he’s starting on it with the first floor. “I want to make our lobby a destination. I want to make it reflective of art. Not just about creating art on the walls. Having children’s shows on the lobby on a Saturday morning. Having a BSA day where young people perform before shows. I just want it to be a bit more open.”

And a little less savvy.

John Barry is a Baltimore based theatre critic and writer.

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