Incoming artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah has bold plans for Center Stage

“There isn’t a taxi driver in Baltimore that can tell you where Center Stage is located,” Kwame Kwei-Armah says of his new theater company. “That has to change.”
“There isn’t a taxi driver in Baltimore that can tell you where Center Stage is located,” Kwame Kwei-Armah says of his new theater company. “That has to change.”(Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Kwame Kwei-Armah has a way of pulling others into his gravitational field, whirling them around and then depositing them in a place at some distance from where they started out.

People leave an encounter with Center Stage's incoming artistic director staggering a bit and with their hair mussed, but visibly charged up.

The 45-year-old Kwei-Armah, who takes over leadership of Maryland's largest regional theater on July 1 from Irene Lewis, was in town last week for a five-day visit. He met a range of Baltimoreans, from civic bigwigs to subscribers to leaders of local arts groups, and during the entire time, he barely stopped talking. Big idea after big idea tumbled out of Kwei-Armah's mouth:

He's told the board of directors that he wants 50 percent of the repertoire to be new works. For that matter, he has already selected the shows that will fill two of the three available slots in the 2012-2013 season. (The plays to be mounted during Kwei-Armah's debut year have already been selected.)

He hates, loathes and detests Center Stage's current facade, and wants to create a more alive and inviting space where people will gather to listen to a lecture or engage in an interactive media display.

"There isn't a taxi driver in Baltimore that can tell you where Center Stage is located," he says. "That has to change."

As the father of three sons and a daughter, ages 6 to 19, the London-born Kwei-Armah worries that kids attending American public schools aren't being exposed to the arts. So he wants Center Stage to sponsor a "monologue slam" for high school students.

He has even had a tantalizing brain wave that could transform Mount Vernon Place into a venue for warm-weather theater.

"Center Stage is not a two-space theater company," he says. "It's a three-theater space. There are the two theaters we have inside and the square around the corner that would be perfect for a summer show. We should be thinking about that. It could be wonderful."

Like many people with a compelling vision and enthusiasm to spare, Kwei-Armah tends to glide over potential obstacles.

Will a season of so many new shows cause his troupe to shed subscribers? Kwei-Armah hopes Center Stage's longtime customers will bear with him and give his plan a chance. And besides, nothing is cast in granite.

Does it make sense to attempt a major building project when the economy remains depressed? Kwei-Armah will make raising the necessary money one of his top priorities.

"Someone once said of me, and he meant it as an insult, that I want to sit with a problem for 10 percent of the time and spend 90 percent of the time on solutions," he says.

"I hate complaining. I'm very comfortable discussing what the issues are. I get very uncomfortable if I get to the end of the second or third meeting and I don't see any concrete, practical fixes being discussed."

Perhaps that's because when his own road got rough, Kwei-Armah never stopped moving, though he may have picked up a few stones in his shoes.

Kwei-Armah's parents immigrated to London from Grenada. He grew up in one of London's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. His father was a factory worker, and his mother took on three jobs (as a nurse, hairstylist and baby sitter) to pay for her son and two daughters to attend private schools.

But the neighborhood was dominated by skinheads, and Kwei-Armah couldn't go to the subway without fighting his way down the street. He has scars on his underarms and legs from knife cuts incurred during some of these skirmishes, though he never was seriously injured.

Typically, he plays down the violence.

"I'm not trying to make myself out to be 50 Cent," he says. "There are people who went through a lot worse than I did."

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.)

In addition to his administrative duties at Center Stage, Kwei-Armah says he expects to direct one play each year and to write one new work. But he grimaces when asked whether audiences can expect to see his newest offerings in the theater he heads.

"Center Stage should not be expected to green-light a production of a play just because I wrote it," he says.

In addition, he has already promised two dozen of Baltimore's small theater troupes that he will attend at least one of each of their shows in his first six months on the job.

It's no wonder that when Kwei-Armah is asked to identify his weaknesses, he says, "I can't organize my diary, and I don't always say no to things I should say no to."

By the time he leaves town Monday, Kwei-Armah will have convinced a lot of people that he can work magic, though he seems to have mixed feelings about that perception.

Why else would he express an awareness of the dangers of creating excessive expectations at the exact same moment that he nudges up the bar?

"I do not wish to be judged after the first 100 days," he says, drawing an implicit comparison between his administration and that of the president of the United States.

"After three years, it will be time to assess how I'm doing. I was going to say five years. But no — five years is too long."

He thinks about it for a minute.

"Toward the end of my second year," he says, "that's when you can start judging me."


Kwame Kwei-Armah

Age: 45

Job: Becomes Center Stage's Artistic Director on July 1.

Residence: Moving to Baltimore from London this summer.

Birthplace: London

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

Other accomplishments: Author of several plays, including the award-winning, "Elmina's Kitchen." Has acted in two television shows that made him a celebrity in Britain. Released a pop album. Served as artistic director of the month-long World Festival of Black Arts in Senegal.

Family: Married, with three sons and a daughter aged 6 to 19.