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Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Kwame Kwei-Armah looks back on Center Stage, Baltimore

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The world premiere of “Soul: The Stax Musical” at Baltimore Center Stage this week will serve as a kind of swan song for Kwame Kwei-Armah.

He stepped down as the company’s artistic director early this year after seven eventful seasons that included a good deal of interesting work onstage and an extraordinary renovation of the theater on Calvert Street.

Now at the helm of the Young Vic in his native London, Kwei-Armah returned to Baltimore to direct “Soul,” a production he planned for his farewell season. During a rehearsal break, I asked him about his experiences with Center Stage and Baltimore. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Any regrets about your tenure with Center Stage?

I’m an ambitious man, because people tell me I’m ambitious. So I would have loved to have brought a regional Tony Award to Center Stage. And to have sent shows from Center Stage to Broadway, not for my ego, but for the institution. These are the main ones.

What did you take away from here that may help you with your new company?

For me, it’s how [Center Stage] connected to the community. That’s the biggest tool I bring back to London, the belief that a theater is a civic center. We are here to serve. I learned that lesson in a profound way during my tenure here.

[In April] I spoke to 2,000 people at an event for the Arts Council England and talked about how on my last day at Center Stage as artistic director the previous board chairman showed me an article in The Baltimore Sun about a young woman in Baltimore who led a demonstration and petitioned the mayor to get the license taken away from a refuse center that was putting toxins in the environment.

When she was asked what inspired her, [the student] said she and her high school classmates came to one of our school matinees of [Ibsen’s] “An Enemy of the People,” which was my first official work here [in 2012], a play about a town’s water being contaminated.

That we have a student matinee so that students may see art they might not otherwise see, and for someone to see that play in modern-day Baltimore, showed me that you never know the power of art to create change. That’s something that will forever live with me, something I’ll take with me.

What about the city will stick with you?

It’s possible to invest seven years in a job like this and then say, “That was cool, I’ll see you in the next life.” But Baltimore has profoundly affected me as a human being and as an artist and as a leader. When I landed in London, I felt like I was back home, but I also realized how much of my soul and spirit I had given to this city, and that this city has given to me.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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