A brutal serving of family strife

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Violence suffuses Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen, a British play receiving a galvanic American premiere at Center Stage.

A father twists his son's arm, pinning him down; a man holds a knife to a former friend's throat; guns are drawn.

None of this is gratuitous, however. To the contrary - showing violence and its consequences is the point of this raw, cautionary tale, set in a West Indian carryout restaurant.

Commissioned by London's prestigious Royal National Theatre, where it debuted in 2003, Elmina's Kitchen focuses on three generations of black men - the restaurant's owner, Deli (Curtis McClarin), his 19-year-old son, Ashley (LeRoy McClain), and Deli's West Indian-immigrant father (Sullivan Walker), who shows up after an absence of 18 years.

The restaurant is a valiant effort by Deli, an ex-con, to make a go of a legitimate business and keep his family from perpetuating the cycle of violence plaguing black Britishers in a section of London known as "Murder Mile."

The play's title, however, refers not only to the restaurant, but also to Elmina Castle, one of the worst slave-trading outposts in Africa. This historical reference is only briefly mentioned in the play. But the reference is thematically vital to Kwei-Armah's drama.

Deli named his restaurant for his late mother, whose portrait hangs above the kitchen door of Neil Patel's realistically grimy set. But her spirit and Deli's determination ultimately aren't enough to stem the bloodshed. Deli's forebears were enslaved at Elmina Castle centuries ago, and now the crime in the streets threatens to enslave his family again.

Kwei-Armah has acknowledged his admiration for August Wilson, and Wilson's inspiration is evident in many respects, particularly in Kwei-Armah's depiction of the storytelling skills and verbal one-upmanship practiced by a group of black men.

With Wilson's influence in mind, Center Stage wisely paired Kwei-Armah with director Marion McClinton, a leading Wilson interpreter as well as a playwright whose 1992 drama, Police Boys, dealt with issues similar to those raised here.

McClinton adeptly varies the pace and tone of the characterizations and action in a way that allows tension to build. McClarin's Deli, a former boxer, is a coil of nerves so caught up in creating a better future, he's barely coping with the present. His restaurant is foundering until Yvette Ganier's Anastasia responds to his help-wanted sign. Ganier portrays Anastasia as a proud, self-protective woman; we don't learn much about Anastasia's past, but Ganier's performance leaves no doubt that her character's survival instincts arose from adversity.

One of Anastasia's recommendations for sprucing up Elmina's is that Deli expel his friend Digger, a thug who hangs out there when he's not shaking down deadbeats. Though his posture is almost always slouched, Thomas Jefferson Byrd's Digger radiates menace. To Deli's impatient, disrespectful son, Ashley, however, Digger has the allure of a fast life and ready money - everything that Ashley's earnest, conventional father lacks.

It never occurs to Deli that his son's attitude toward him may have been influenced by the contempt Deli feels for his own father.

Elmina's Kitchen demands a lot from theatergoers, starting with its language, which is laden with profanity and frequently spoken in various thick West Indian dialects. (It would help to have a glossary of British-West Indian slang in the program, instead of merely on the lobby wall.)

But while the play's setting and characters may seem foreign on the surface, the issues that Kwei-Armah raises - such as urban violence and the dangerous legacies passed from one generation to the next - transcend national and ethnic boundaries. This is a writer whose voice is at once new and disturbingly familiar, and Center Stage deserves credit for taking the bold risk of introducing him to American audiences.

Elmina's Kitchen

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 30 (Events and discussions related to the play are scheduled throughout the run, including a Jan. 15 community forum; call the box office for information.)

Tickets: $10-$60

Call: 410-332-0033

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