Kwame on Centerstage

The Brit has grit.

Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British-born playwright, director and actor. In July 2011, he became Artistic Director of Center Stage succeeding Irene Lewis. He was recently appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for services to drama. While these are impressive facts, it’s his intangibles that make him powerful and compelling.

Kwame has a nucleus of strengths; personal characteristics, god-given talents, and life experiences that make him a natural leader. His vision as Artistic Director is to make Center Stage, and Baltimore, relevant in a national conversation about theater. At the core of his power is risk and vulnerability. He’s human and he never stops learning how to be. What serves him as an artist elevates him as a leader.

He gets Baltimore: Blue collar roots offering ripe cultural fruit. He gets how art leads change. He’s a dynamic and unselfish player in the Baltimore Renaissance What Weekly documents.

I first interviewed Kwame August 2011 (http://whatweekly.com/2011/08/17/8460/). The motto over his desk was: Be of service to and through my art form. Then, I wanted to learn about his leadership approach. This time, I wanted to uncover his personal brand DNA. While it sounds heavy it was a lot of fun. Get to know and enjoy him.

Peter: When you got into theatre you were partly driven by being “fed-up of complaining that there were so few parts for black actors in Britain that told the stories I wanted to tell.” So you became a playwright. Then, you found yourself complaining about, “what plays were being staged and what was being commissioned.” Today you are the Artistic Director of a regional theater deciding what plays are being staged and commissioned. What drives you now?

Kwame: What drives me now is that I learn what that gig really is. It’s easy when you’re on the outside saying, “Why aren’t you doing this or why aren’t you doing that or the other?” And then you get into the shoes and you understand some of the dilemmas, some of the pressures that you just didn’t think about before.

Peter: Name one.

Kwame: Serving your audience, understanding their demographic, making sure they are served, that not just your own personal taste is being served. Learning that lesson has been a fundamental one. And understanding that my art, now, is in pleasing the 100,000 tickets that we sell a year. It is in trying to both lead and entertain. Trying to take us in a direction and asking some fundamental questions, but also letting people leave the theater smiling and feeling good about themselves. And all of that in one season.

Peter: Is the default leading or entertaining?

Kwame: Before taking this role I would have said leading, absolutely hands down. I would have said at my most depressed, trying to create a season six months ago, entertaining. When I got push back saying this season isn’t entertaining enough, I was, oh my god (!) have I just missed something? I would now say they are inseparable.

Peter: You’re in the front-end of your second year. What do you think you are doing right, so far?

Kwame: It’s hard to say what you’re doing right because we are dwarfed by the fears of what we’re doing wrong. And dwarfed even more by the fears of not knowing what you’re doing wrong that will soon hit you in the face. So, it’s very hard to jump out and say what I’m doing right?

Peter: What feels right?

Kwame: What feels right is a very wonderful question. Feel is absolutely the right word. It felt right at 50 Fest when I walked out ontoMonument Street and I saw that was now called Theater Row, and that there were stages and there were tents filled with other theater companies and there was painting on the floors-

Peter: All which you sponsored.

Kwame: Yes. We joined the Book Fair in order to make that happen. That felt right. It felt right when I was playing ping pong with Single Carrot on that street. It felt right when my son was being put into costumes by Iron Crow. It felt right when people were coming up to me on the street and saying, “Thank you, for this is a no-brainer.” It felt right when I walked into the theater and all of our stages and spaces were filled with theatrical practitioners. It. Felt. Right. I came here saying I wanted to make sure that we are no longer perceived as the castle on the hill. It felt right, and feels right when I go to the Pearlstone and see Susan Rome, a local actor playing a lead part, and Jimmy Kinstle playing a role. It feels right when I go into the Head and I see Bruce Nelson (another local actor) playing Poe, right now. These things feel right.

Peter: So the castle has become a campfire around which we gather.

Kwame: I might adopt that metaphor internally from this point on.

Peter: Take it.

Kwame: Thank you, sir. When I arrived I wanted to make Center Stage part of the community and I think that is starting to happen. When I came here under Irene’s administration I felt at home, I felt valued. I felt…I’ll go as far as to say, loved. That’s from audience and from the building. One of the things that I’m determined to make happen is that when people walk into the theater that they feel like I felt when I first came in, a combination of all those things. That we do not become a rigid kind of linear-driven organization that only cares about getting the next show out. We have to do all of those things, but we have to do them spiritually.

Peter: Describe your relationship with Baltimore’s home-grown Do-It-Yourself theaters.

Kwame: When I came here people asked, “Where are you going to?” and I said (Center Stage)Baltimore. They said, “Are there any other theaters inBaltimore?” That does me no good. Because when I put up on Face Book, “Oh, by the way, people inBaltimore are loving our show.” to everybody else inAmerica and inBritain we’re the only theater in town. I would shout—Look at the work that’s being done by Single Carrot, Iron Crow, theStrand.

So it’s been really important to me to begin to reach out to those companies and say, guys the more we up our game the more we upBaltimore. We’re all servingBaltimore. I would like to say my relationship with many of the other theaters inBaltimoreis an evolving one, where I’ve made a commitment to go and see shows, invite them into the house, and make sure that we are seen as one.

Peter: Why do you care?

Kwame: I care because theater is an instrument for change. One of the few instruments in life we have that we can go and see ourselves in the flesh. We spend 8 to 10 hours a day on our commutes and on our ipads and iphones. In theater you walk into the room and you’re seeing yourself and your story. You’re being taken to a part of the world you didn’t know, but looking into yourself at the same time. It’s important thatBaltimore has a myriad of entry points to that world. We are just but one. I want us to be the best—someone has to be the best, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be the best every time. It means that actually the best doesn’t have to be singular. The best can be 4 or 5.

Peter: Or it could be on any given weekend.

Kwame: Correct! That’s the interesting thing–any given weekend, any given weekday.

Peter: You don’t know at which theater it’s going to happen.

Kwame: And that creates Buzz! That creates energy; where should I be?

Peter: How did you build this season?

Kwame: Around conversation. Around the theme that theater isn’t this thing that you just come in and you take it because it’s good for you and then out you go. As a person I love conversation, I love exchange, I learn through exchange. And I want the institution to learn, and for me to learn about who my audience really is. I want you to be talking about the things that we have placed on the stage when you get home. Even if you didn’t like the play I want you to be able to say, this is an important valuable thing. I want the theater to be seen as somewhere that you can go and take your brain and engage with it and then converse. I want the audience to make sure that they know that each and everyone can communicate. Have a conversation, not just with themselves and the art, but themselves, the art and the institution that presents the art. That’s it’s a triangular conversation.

Peter: As a director what are you looking for in a script?

Kwame: When you read something—you know. That X-factor where one’s either moved spiritually, intellectually, by an idea, by dialogue, by the story, by the theme. Plays that move me are the plays that I could never write myself. I go, I love that angle, or I love that idea. There’s another kind of play which says, wow, the construction and the dialogue, what a technician! And all of those things have to come together for me to go, I want to program that.

Peter: What’s the actor’s job?

Kwame: The actor’s job is to be the third dimension. There’s the idea, there’s the playwright and application of the idea, and there is the third dimension of the idea–the flesh. The actor’s job is to make human the black and white that’s on the page. It’s to be a clear vessel for the playwright’s idea, to make manifest the ideas in human form.

Peter: Given that, what’s the director’s job?

Kwame: To come to terms with the 10,000 decisions you make about every piece of this production. And to be able to live with the one bad one that you make being the one that everyone spots, and not just the 9, 999 good ones. I think the director’s job is to get out of the way. It’s to find a way to be a leader, to help the text be true….to try and deliver upon the truth that the playwright is trying to produce.

Peter: As someone who values the intuitive process of the actor, how do you know when to step in?

Kwame: Part of the reason I became a director is that I found an unhealthy attitude amongst some directors that actors are babies, and what you have to do is almost manipulate them to do the things you want them to do. I had a real problem with that as an actor. I’m like, I’m not a child. If you want me to do something specific just tell me.

I’m a bit of an interventionist director. In week one (of rehearsals), I say, guys, you’re going to do what you want to do and I’ll say, I like it or I don’t, try another thing. I like to get a sense of the shape by the end of the first week. So sometimes I’ll drive quite hard, and then in week 2 or 3 I’ll go, great, we know what that draft looks like, now let’s do what the fuck we want and let’s just play.

Peter: What surprises you in that process?

Kwame: How wrong I can be. What my gut instincts were in week 1 and by the time we get to week 4 that I was really wrong. The decision that I thought was absolutely brilliant, yeah, let’s play with that some more, and actually, I was wrong and that the actor’s instinct was correct. My job was to shut my mouth rather than say something at that time.

Peter: What are you fighting for with a knife clenched in your teeth?

Kwame: I was going to say something cliché. But it is true, for me. I’m trying to find a way to say it that doesn’t sound self aggrandizing. Up until maybe 5 years ago, I would say the thing I hate most in life is racism. And now the thing I hate most in life is poverty. Poverty hurts me. Pains me. Weighs heavily on me. Disturbs me. To walk the streets and see physical poverty, financial poverty, spiritual poverty, these things pain my heart and strike at the very core of my being. Now race still does play a major, but… So, to answer that question I would say that sits right at the center of my soul is the pursuit of justice. That’s the naff (British slang meaning uncool, unfashionable or worthless) word I was trying not to use. And I don’t really know what that means other than it is our duty to let people fulfill their potential. It’s our duty to let people be the best they can be. It’s our duty to allow people voice the greatness that is inside of them. To live to the higher great, not the lowest common denominator. A sense of duty lies right at the core.

Peter: And if we do what happens?

Kwame: I worry more that if we don’t, then we don’t touch the heights. And when we do, when people are allowed a voice, are allowed equality, allowed a sense of ownership then people contribute to the far bigger and greater work.

Not to get too philosophical, we are born out of fear. We enter the world with fear. My first child did this. When he came out he looked to the left and looked to the right, almost as if saying “is this where I am?”  And then he began to cry.

If we enter the world in a prism of fear, then our job is to make life less scary. Life for the poor is scary.

Peter: Why do we need playwrights and new plays?

Kwame: Because we need to take the pulse of our nation on a regular basis. We need to do it in a live context where we can see the spit and can feel the funk. Without people charged with holding the mirror up we live a vacuous world filled with reality television.

Peter: As an artist, how do you know when the question is big enough?

Kwame: Oh, brilliant question! That’s an interesting question. I don’t know.

Peter: I don’t either.

Kwame: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

It’s interesting. Last night there was a post-show discussion about Enemy (of the People). The debate was about the use of media in the play. It was very interesting to me as it was soon evident that that question wasn’t big enough. It took the discussion maybe 45 minutes to get to the place where I began to get excited. Which is when someone in the audience said what Enemy is really about is the people. What will the people tolerate? How will the people allow themselves, how much manipulation does it take before the audience–we the audience-society-go–enough is enough? I then started vamping around was the question in Enemy big enough? And I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer to that. And I think that’s going to be part of my learning curve. As a playwright—I know what the burning question is for me—but whether it’s big enough or not the audience will tell me. As an artistic director an audience will tell me.

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A leader who says, “I don’t know, let’s find out together,” can be trusted.

Peter Davis

Peter is a branding consultant based in Baltimore

Philip Laubner

Philip is a writer and portrait photographer based in Baltimore.

  • Lee

    This is a brilliant interview! The deeply insightful interviewer, rather than stage himself, used his gift only wisely: as a probe to retrieve what mattered from his subject. Now we know what a gift Kwame is.