Center Stage announced Monday that British playwright, actor and director Kwame Kwei-Armah will be the company's new artistic director. He succeeds Irene Lewis, who steps down at the end of this season after 19 years.
"I've just fallen in love with Center Stage and fallen in love with Baltimore," Kwei-Armah said from London. "When the position became available, I felt it might be somewhat disrespectful to Irene to throw my hat in the ring, but she said it was a wonderful idea."
Lewis, who described Kwei-Armah as "a very big talent who so far in his life has triumphed at everything," introduced him to Center State audiences with the American premieres of his plays "Elmina's Kitchen" in 2005 and "Let There Be Love" last season. He also directed Naomi Wallace's "Things of Dry Hours" for the company in 2007.
Lewis said Center Stage is "extremely lucky to get my friend Kwame, who had been an associate artist here. It's nice to provide some continuity," she said, "but it will be very different."
One of those differences is background.
Kwei-Armah said the board was "tremendously brave to make a man of color the artistic director."
"The fact that Kwame is of African/Caribbean descent and has lived in Britain his whole life just brings a richness of diversity," said Jay Smith, Center Stage board president. "We found that very attractive."
Smith said the company would continue its "commitment to diverse plays and the African-American community in Baltimore, which is a legacy Irene brought to us and left with us."
Kwei-Armah also praised that legacy, noting that at a recent performance he attended of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" at Center Stage, "one-third of the audience was African-American. I don't know any theater in London or in England where that would be the case for a Pinter play," he said.
Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, chaired the 13-member search committee that sorted through more than 100 candidates for the artistic director post during the past nine months.
"Our goal was for dynamic, organic change," Dietz said. "It was thrilling to be with so many really great candidates, especially the last four. You get immediately from Kwame the special personality, the humanity and the exuberance."
Kwei-Armah currently serves on the boards of the National Theatre and Tricycle Theatre in London and was artistic director of the World Arts Festival in Senegal, a monthlong celebration of black arts and culture. His acting credits in England include a role on the long-running, "ER"-like show on the BBC called "Casualty."
His official start date is July 1, depending on immigration procedures. He plans to move to Baltimore with his wife and four children.
"Baltimore has been my second artistic home," he said. "This just makes it my first. My wife already has a network of friends here. Everyone in the family has been to Baltimore already during my work at Center Stage. Had they not liked it, I wouldn't have taken the job."
The new artistic director will not be able to put his stamp on the company's artistic product right away; the 2011-2012 season has already been largely set.
"I may have a little input into the end of next season," he said. "But next season gives me time to listen, to have a re-engagement with the community. It will give me time to commission works and develop relationships."
Kwei-Armah, said he would hire a managing director and will direct one or two plays a season, starting in 2012-2013.
"I love new work, but I also love revisiting the classics," he said. "And I have some Ideas for adaptations I want to put to the board to see if they have legs."
In addition to focusing on the quality of work onstage, artistic directors are typically expected to take part in fundraising efforts requiring a lot of schmoozing. "I'm comfortable with that," he said. "You need money to be bold and futuristic and risk-taking."
During the Lewis years, Center Stage had a reputation as a company generally uninterested in local acting talent.
"With me living in Baltimore," Kwei-Armah said, "I am going to be able to engage with local artists, sit down with them. I won't please everyone, but I do not feel actors need to go to New York to get into the theater."
Kwei-Armah "respects the legacy of Center Stage," Smith said, "but at the same time wants to take us to a new place. He has the ability to bring people together, to be involved with the community. He's already respected by the staff."
That feeling is mutual.
"The staff [is] magnificent," Kwei-Armah said. "The facilities of the theater are magnificent. Let me be frank. I am not coming in to be the Holy Grail, saying, 'Here I am, this brilliant thing who will make everything wonderful.' ... I've been given this opportunity to grow personally and professionally and to help a theater to grow. Who in their right mind is going to turn that down?"