IN ELMINA'S Kitchen, a fellow in a boxer's crouch throws one-two uppercuts. But he's swinging at phantoms rattling through his brain. A lanky cobra in dreadlocks puts away his gun long enough to yank out his cell phone for a little high-tech street-corner lawbreaking. A third man puts his knife to another's windpipe. But, between bursts of violence, they're all pretty likable folks. And, in their desperation, they're a little too intimate with the odor of death.
They inhabit the wrenching play at Center Stage, Elmina's Kitchen, which feels like a bunch of British West Indians transplanted to the most forlorn parts of Baltimore. Kwame Kwei-Armah, a popular singer and actor in England, wrote it. Partly, it comes out of his knowing a rough immigrant section of London called Murder Mile; but, partly, it comes out of a brief stop Kwei-Armah made in Baltimore four years ago, when he discovered the pain that resonates on both sides of the Atlantic.
"The global diaspora of suffering," Kwei-Armah called it. "Our youths are dying, and their blood is consecrating the earth."
He said this the other night, as he watched a Center Stage crowd file out of the theater. They seemed slightly shell-shocked, in the way art is supposed to shock us out of our complacencies and make us look anew at the world we only think we know.
These characters are the stuff of our most familiar headlines of self-destruction among the underclass. But they're not so different from the faces in our own mirrors - just more frustrated, more desperate and more openly flailing around for a way out of their troubles.
The Center Stage run is the play's American premiere. This is appropriate for a couple of reasons. One, the mood is so close to that of so many Baltimore neighborhoods. Two, Kwei-Armah started writing it here. Four years ago, he said, he sat in a downtown hotel room, and read newspaper coverage of some of the local street carnage, and began to knit the world together.
He'd come to Washington to see King Hedley II at the National Theater and to Baltimore to see Ragtime at the Mechanic. Ragtime reminds us of immigrants' heartbreaking struggles and simultaneous triumphs. Elmina's Kitchen isn't so sure about the triumphs. King Hedley is part of playwright August Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of the struggles in African-American life. Elmina's Kitchen plays like a British version of Wilson's American saga.
Everybody in Elmina wants to make up for the mistakes they've made, but nobody's exactly sure how to do it and who, exactly, is standing in their way. The cycle of poverty and prison and despair builds on itself while its inhabitants mark time, puff up, act out, ponder their options on both sides of the law and advertise their toughness so nobody can spot their vulnerability and take advantage of it.
"There's not much difference this side of the world or that," Ernest Perry Jr., was saying the other night. "You hustle."
Perry plays a character named Baygee, who wears a suit and carries a good-natured twinkle in his eye as part of his salesman's survival kit - but, instinctively, because it's part of his particular level of hell, gets ready to throw a few punches when he thinks he's being tested.
Then there's Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who plays Digger, a drug dealer seducing the next young generation of criminals. As the Center Stage crowd filed out the other night, Byrd reflected on the play.
"It's raw," he said, "and that's the way life is sometimes. We worry about losing our children. That's our commonality. We hope this play will encourage people to look at our children and what drives them: materialism, the class difference. This play makes us look at what we can do to save them."
In a city where hundreds lose their lives to violence each year, the words resonate. Elmina's Kitchen takes us behind numbing police statistics. It reminds us that, between gunshots, these are human beings looking for a better place. They crack wise, make romance, search for comfortable rhythms, deal with their minor disturbances in ways both caustic and comic.
When Sullivan Walker's character, Clifton, bemoans troubles he's having with his feet, he mutters, "I blame it on the white man."
The line's a hoot because it's so preposterous. White people inhabit a different solar system than these isolated folks - but everybody understands the history of white oppressiveness that helped plant entire generations here. So the remark's a sly reminder: of wealthy nations that test their minorities, and newcomers of all persuasions, and the fallout in every corner of people's lives.
Europeans have always (correctly) sneered at American racism. But they're not so smug since they've been dealing with their own influx of Third World arrivals. Now their coping mechanisms tend to look a lot like ours, and so do the results.
The most powerful theater connects to real life. Elmina's Kitchen comes out of Britain, but theatergoers will notice its clear reflection as they make their way home through Baltimore's bleakest streets.