Five months before Kwame Kwei-Armah's initial three-year contract as artistic director of Center Stage was to expire, the board of directors has extended this tenure through June 2018. The company's managing director, Stephen Richard, who started in 2012, has received a similar contract extension.
"We hired Kwame with the hope that it would be for a longer-term relationship than three years," said Jay Smith, president of the board of trustees. "And when we hired Stephen, we thought that gave us a great team. The vote to extend their contracts was decisive. There was no dissent whatsoever. We wanted to show them a vote of confidence. "
Among the reasons for that confidence: Total attendance at Center Stage productions has increased 17.5 percent since Kwei-Armah began his tenure in 2011; total ticket revenue is up 28 percent; subscription revenue up 34 percent; contributed income up 15 percent.
The number of Center Stage subscribers was 8,200 in 2011, the lowest number in more than two decades. The total is 9,600 this season.
"The truth is, I always intended, if they wanted me, to do at least six years," said Kwei-Armah. "I'm having as good a time as I could have expected. And there is a lot more I want to do. I think I know now the square acreage of the property, but I feel like I still haven't been in three-quarters of the rooms."
London-born Kwei-Armah, a playwright, actor and stage director, knew some of that territory before he was hired by Center Stage. Two of his plays had been given their American premieres by the company, and he had also directed a production for the company.
"Being an artistic director was not on my checklist," he said, "but when the Center Stage offer came up, I thought: I know the company, I know Baltimore, I love Baltimore. Had any [other company] asked me, I would have said no."
Kwei-Armah expects to return to at some point to England, where a recent news item there suggested that he was a long-shot candidate for the top post at the National Theatre of Great Britain.
"I don't have the ambition to take over a company there," he said.
And although he described being in Baltimore as "a beautiful sojourn," he doesn't sound interested in cutting his residency short.
"I like to complete a mission," he said. "I know I've tripped up many times, but I want to make this work. I want to create the kind of theater here that I'm proud of and, hopefully, that the audience will enjoy."
Although not all of his choices of repertoire and/or artists have been met with praise, Kwei-Armah's artistic record has certainly been distinctive. It has also drawn extraordinary national attention.
The show chronicled one of Kwei-Armah's most ambitious undertakings — last season's double production of "Clybourne Park," the Bruce Norris work inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's classic about race, "A Raisin in the Sun"; and the premiere of Kwei-Armah's "Beneatha's Place," likewise inspired by 'Raisin," but also a response to the Norris play.
"That PBS special was a very cool thing," Richard said. "We estimate we reached 750,000 people."
The Raisin Cycle is not the only Center Stage venture that has addressed race. Several plays focusing on African-American characters and issues have been presented during Kwei-Armah's first years on the job, among them Marcus Gardley's "dance of the holy ghosts" this season and Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop" last season.
This is not new for Center Stage, where diversity of programming and of audiences was a point of pride for previous artistic director Irene Lewis, who is white.
"One of the interesting things for me as an artistic director of color," Kwei-Armah said, "is that we will get complaints from maybe 1 percent who will write, 'Why has Kwame Kwei-Armah got this black agenda on? Everything is black, black, black, black.' That always amuses me. I am doing exactly what Irene was doing in terms of African-American works. When Irene was doing it, it was philanthropy. When I am doing it, it's an agenda."
Sensitive to such reactions, the artistic director decided to play down a community outreach project this month called "Trayvon Moments," a series of "conversations and performances" dealing with the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. There were no news releases about the events.
"We put the word out quietly," Kwei-Armah said.
In addition to encountering a few people with racially tinged complaints — "That was a real growing up lesson for me, but I can't let that get in my way," he said — Kwei-Armah has been surprised by other attitudes about programming at Center Stage.
"If a play's been on in the last 20 years, people will say, 'I've seen it.' So it's off the books," he said. "That's a conundrum I find really fascinating. And I'm still finding the right balance of new plays versus the classics. When I first came here, I was thinking: One [play] for me, one for the theater. Now it's: One for them, one for them, one for them, one for me. And I've got to enjoy that."
For future seasons, Kwei-Armah plans to include musicals ("The genre means a lot to me") and contemporary work from other countries.
Premiering plays is also on his mind.
"Commissioning new work is how we get to tomorrow," he said. "A company is judged by how much we put back into the business, how much we invest in the future. I have found that Baltimore likes a new play, but the audience is not as large as would like it to be."
To generate interest in new work, Kwei-Armah has considered adding star power. He said he has approached some big names in theater about performing at Center Stage.
"The goal is not a star for a star's sake," he said, "but to give a new play bigger attention. Having a star could also be a way to get people more interested in a classic we bring back."
The artistic director envisions Center Stage putting on an outdoor production in the future, as well as taking performances into homeless shelters and prisons in the area.
The company, which has an annual budget of $7.5 million and an endowment valued at about $17 million, is exploring other ways of extending its reach.
"We're looking at streaming our work into middle and high schools across the state," Richard said. "This would be a way to put what we do out there for a young audience. The hurdles are many. If we can resolve union issues, I think we'll see that happening."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun