Also typical was the teen's survival technique.

As he puts it: "I was usually able to talk my way out of trouble."

The British literary manager, Nick Drake, says there's an apparent contradiction between his longtime friend's public persona and what Drake sees as "Kwame's complex emotional chemistry."

On the one hand, there's the ebullient face that the artist presents in his professional capacity. Kwei-Armah is so optimistic and self-assured, so filled with energy, that he makes others believe that they, too, can overcome all hurdles.

On the other hand, there's the Kwei-Armah who reveals himself through his writing, both in his acclaimed plays and in the columns published in British newspapers. These pages depict an outside world that seemed bent on making the young black men despise himself.

For instance, Kwei-Armah wrote in 2007 for the British newspaper "The Observer that when he was a boy, a female cousin supplied him with a surefire technique for streamlining a nose that the community had judged to be too wide and therefore too "black."

The girl "introduced me to the 'pinching technique,'" Kwei-Armah wrote, "a simple exercise of pinching the bridge area of your nose several times a day, and in due course I would have the much desired aquiline snout. I tried this for several weeks without noticeable success."

In addition, teachers told the youth "that the structure of the black mouth would not allow me to speak properly," he says.

What made those destructive messages so insidious was that cruelty often was disguised by a veneer of kindness; his instructors were trying to reassure the young Kwame that his difficulties articulating weren't his fault.

Kwei-Armah says he began to overcome his feelings of inferiority at age 19, and after researching his family tree. He traced his lineage back six generations to his great-great-great grandfather, who was abducted from Ghana.

The teen decided he would no longer bear the slave owner's name. No longer would he be called the vaguely Scottish-sounding "Ian Roberts." He reverted instead to "Kwame Kwei-Armah," which means "born to find the way."

"After I traced my lineage," he says, "all the rage I had as a young man disappeared."

Since then, Kwei-Armah has seemed determined to prove wrong the notion that no one is good at everything. In the past decade alone, he has enjoyed notable successes as an actor, playwright, singer and arts administrator.

He was accorded celebrity status in Britain after starring for five years in an "ER"-style series called "Casualty." When he decided to step down from the role in 2004, his decision made newspaper headlines.

In 2003, after coming in third in a reality-TV talent show, "Comic Relief's Celebrity Fame Academy," passers-by would shout from the windows of passing buses that he'd been robbed. (He later released a pop album called 'Kwame" that showcased his fine tenor.)

Kwei-Armah is on the boards of three theater companies, including England's venerable National Theatre. And late last year, he was artistic director for the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Senegal, a monthlong cultural celebration involving more than 6,000 artists.

But his friend, Drake, thinks that Kwei-Armah will make his greatest contribution as a playwright.

"As the manager of a theater company, Kwame will be sensational," Drake says.

"As a director of plays by other people, he'll make bold choices about works he feels passionately about. But my greatest admiration is for Kwame's writing, for the way that he's brought a very particular world to life. And I would say that a lot of the energy for that comes from his past and his family relationships."

Drake served as a dramaturg for Kwei-Armah's best-known work, the gritty, urban drama "Elmina's Kitchen." It became just the second play written by a black Briton to be produced on London's West End. (A production of "Elmina's Kitchen" subsequently ran at Center Stage in 2005.)