Center Stage's Kwame Kwei-Armah is finally putting his vision on stage

Kwame Kwei-Armah is doing his utmost to speed up the transitions.

Center Stage's new artistic director strides back and forth along the stage where the troupe's production of "The Whipping Man" is being rehearsed, scrutinizing the set from all angles.


He brings in more helpers. He removes obstacles from the actors' paths and cuts out extra steps. He signals the precise moment when two bags of loot are flung through an open doorway and land on the floor with a muffled thump.

"Boom! Boom!" he says, as an assistant clicks a stopwatch. But the scene change remains dismayingly long.

"Thirty-six seconds!" Kwei-Armah says, clutching his head with both hands in mock horror. "That's horrible! This transition is an act all by itself. What can we do to make it shorter?"

Baltimore is about to find out.

Though the British-born Kwei-Armah has officially been artistic director of Maryland's largest regional theater since July, this is the week he's finally getting the opportunity to put his vision into action.

He just selected the first season of shows that Center Stage will produce during his tenure, and the lineup departs in significant ways from the theatrical mix to which audiences have become accustomed.

Subscribers will probably notice first that the 2012-2013 season is loaded with provocative and ambitious dramas; it won't be particularly lighthearted. They may also sense Kwei-Armah's determination to champion new works, to open up Center Stage to top local actors and to continue developing his voice as a playwright.

And the newcomer can't help being concerned about how the troupe's longtime customers will react.

"There will be some criticism that there won't be a comedy or musical at Center Stage next season," Kwei-Armah says. "But there's time. It'll be at least three years before I've gone through the cycle of the things that I really want to produce. I'm not leaving after a year, unless they run me out of town."

When he wants to put worries about next season out of his mind, he can always fix his attention on his directing debut as Center Stage's new leader.

"This is a big deal for Kwame," says actor Kevyn Morrow, who is performing in "The Whipping Man." "The pressure is on, and we don't want to let him down."

If the spotlight seems a bit hotter than usual, it's because Kwei-Armah has more experience as an actor and playwright than as a director, and the skills required for these jobs are quite different.

"The Whipping Man" will be just his sixth directing effort. Two of the previous shows were productions of his own work, so the usual problem of interpreting another writer didn't arise.

When "The Whipping Man" opens Wednesday, it will be Kwei-Armah's chance to demonstrate that he can coax top-notch performances from actors. It will be his opportunity to show that this extremely verbal actor and playwright can create compelling stage pictures that illustrate a play's themes.


"I'm in the belly of the beast," Kwei-Armah says. "If there's extra pressure on me, if there's a moment of nervousness, I can't afford to think about it right now. All I can do is dive in."

In a way, he was preparing for this moment even before he got the job.

Kwei-Armah recalls standing in line on a cold January day in New York in 2011 and snapping up tickets for the first preview of the intriguing titled drama "The Whipping Man" by an unknown playwright named Matthew Lopez.

"It was nearly all sold out. There were just two tickets left," Kwei-Armah says.

"I left that night feeling that I'd just seen a play that I wished that I'd written. The play is set on the day after the Civil War ends, and I was touched by the depiction of what the first day of freedom for formerly enslaved Africans might have been like."

Center Stage administrators left a gap in the current season so the candidate hired to head the company could fill it with a show of his or her choosing. When Kwei-Armah got the nod about a month after his New York trip, he knew immediately that he wanted to direct "The Whipping Man."

Lopez's drama is about the shifting relationship between a wounded Confederate soldier and his two former slaves. All three are practicing Jews, and the show raises difficult questions about hypocrisy, liberation and the dynamics of power.

From a purely technical standpoint, "The Whipping Man" is a relatively simple show to stage, posing few of the mechanical and pragmatic challenges that can bedevil even the most experienced directors.

There are just three characters and one set. There are no blink-of-an-eye costume changes, no live orchestra. None of the actors have to fly across the stage on cables or rise from beneath the stage through a trap door. The show doesn't have a single choreographed dream ballet or ghostly visitation.

But Kwei-Armah couldn't have chosen a play whose subject matter seems further from his personal experience — or from that of Lopez, the author.

Kwei-Armah is the son of Grenadians who immigrated to England. Though he has visited the U.S. extensively since 1983 and can quote dialogue from 1980s films and chat knowledgeably about the changes in Harlem since the 1990s, he has lived on this side of the Atlantic for less than a year. He was raised in a Pentecostal church and describes himself as "an Afro-centric Christian."

(Lopez grew up in the Episcopalian church; his father is Puerto Rican and his mother has a Russian-Polish heritage.)

So all Kwei-Armah has to do is convey complex nuances of both Jewishness and of being black in America that will pass muster with an audience that places a premium on keeping it real.

"Had I not sat in an audience in New York whom I perceived to be predominantly Jewish, I wouldn't have touched the play," Kwei-Armah says. "I would have worried about the Jewish reaction, not having lived that life. But the audience in New York engaged with 'The Whipping Man' very positively.

"I worry less about directing American stories because I've spent so much time here and I'm so comfortable with the culture. American slavery and Caribbean slavery came out of the same head set, which is British, even though your crop was cotton and ours was sugar."

Rabbi Steven M. Fink, who served as a production consultant for "The Whipping Man," and the play's two African-American actors are impressed by Kwei-Armah's exhaustive research and attention to detail.


The rabbi met with the actors and helped them master Hebrew pronunciation. He explained the symbolic aspects of the seder and discussed the historical authenticity of Lopez's play. The rabbi told the cast that while there is no proof that there were black Jewish slaves in the antebellum South, it's possible.

"We know that in general, house slaves often took on their masters' religion," Fink says.

Cast member Morrow has been keenly aware since rehearsals began that he's re-enacting an event on stage that one of his ancestors lived through.

"My Great-Grandma Sophie was a field slave in Alabama from the time she was 8 or 9 years old until she was in her 20s," Morrow says. "I met her when I was 6 or 7 and she was in her late 90s. She got her liberty on the day the South surrendered.

"She talked about the oppression and degradation, and then the wonder of being freed. I imagine that she would be proud that this story is being told, and that her great-grandson is helping to tell it."

If you go

"The Whipping Man" starts Wednesday and runs through May 13 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10-$45. Call 410-332-0033 or go to for showtimes.

Kwame Kwei-Armah

Age: 45

Birthplace: London

Residence: Roland Park.

Title: Artistic director, Center Stage

Education: Bachelor's degree in African civilization, 1987, from the Open University, London; master's degree in classical narrative, 2001, from the University of the Arts, London.

Accomplishments: Achieved celebrity status in his native Great Britain playing the role of paramedic Finlay Newton in the BBC drama "Casualty" from 1999 to 2004.

In 2003, came in third on an "American Idol"-style TV talent show, "Comic Relief's Celebrity Fame Academy." Later released a pop album.

In 2005, he became the second black Briton to have written a play produced on London's West End. "Elmina's Kitchen" is part of a trilogy exploring issues of race and immigration.

In 2010, served as artistic director of the monthlong World Festival of Black Arts in Senegal, which involved staging a show with a cast of 1,000 in a stadium seating 40,000.

Personal: Married, four children.