Starting the Conversation
Kwame Kwei-Armah aims to make Center Stage the hub of a global theater community
Published: August 29, 2012
There is a hole in one exposed brick wall in the lobby of the Center Stage building on North Calvert Street. It is several inches in diameter and filled with a half-dozen cables that are, for the moment, drooping to the floor. But in the vision of Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, these cables will soon connect to a giant interactive media wall that will make Baltimore the focal point of a “community of theater” to include, tentatively, Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, Boston’s Artist Repertory Theater, and other East Coast theaters—and some day, far beyond that.
“The idea is to have artists and intellectuals talking from all over the world, and the venue to be is here,” he says, decisively pointing down at the stained carpet in his cluttered office, just up the stairs from the lobby. “You can walk up to the media wall, you can touch it, you can attract someone’s attention, you can then have a conversation with them pre-show, linked right into their lobbies. In the future, I might have artistic directors, designers, actors—have a global conference call in our lobby!”
Kwei-Armah, who took over as AD just over a year ago and is about to launch the company’s first full season under his purview, gesticulates wildly, eyes bulging in excitement. It’s worth noting that he is not only this animated in talking about his grand vision for Center Stage, but also about a marketing meeting he had earlier this week or, say, favorite snacks from his native London (Jacob’s Cream Crackers, FYI). Whatever’s in this guy’s coffee, we could all use some.
The media wall, which will launch with a corresponding wall in an as-yet-unannounced New York theater some time during the 2012-13 season, is just one of a handful of ambitious ideas the accomplished actor, singer, and playwright brought with him to Baltimore. Among the others were plans to have outdoor shows in Mount Vernon Square; to build a third performance space at Center Stage, for experimental theater; and to make the building’s exterior more recognizable—“There isn’t a taxi driver in Baltimore that can tell you where Center Stage is located,” he told The Sun shortly after he took over as AD.
But, as often happens with visionaries, dreams have been slowed by reality.
“Someone told when I first started that one year in the mind of an artistic director is about three years of actual time,” he says, though he remains committed to all of his visions. “But we’ll get there, absolutely.”
Closer on the horizon is Kwei-Armah’s first season—doubly noteworthy because it is also the storied theater’s 50th season. Unsurprisingly bold and ambitious, the season, like the media wall, is all about dialogue.
“The role of a good theater is to be a conversation starter,” he says, “to use art as a catalyst for debate of issues or things that matter to the community or to the country.”
Perhaps the most ambitious show on the schedule is My America, for which Kwei-Armah commissioned monologues from 50 American playwrights, including some of the most renowned, like Neil LaBute, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lynn Nottage, and Danny Hoch. The monologues were filmed, directed by Hal Hartley, and will premier at Center Stage on Sept. 28, and made available on-line.
“Asking 50 writers to write about their America as we run up to an election, saying ‘What is the America that I now live in and what is the America that I want,’ is a wonderful articulation of the kind of debate we should be having,” he says.
Also driving home the theme of debate are alternating performances of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about gentrification that picks up where Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun left off, and Kwei-Armah’s own play, Beneatha’s Place, itself a response to Clybourne.
Among the other surefire conversation-starters on the menu is Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which Kwei-Armah will direct himself (he’s committed himself to directing and writing one play per season, though he can’t say for sure that all of his new works will debut at Center Stage), about a theoretical conversation between Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a hotel maid on the night of King’s assassination. Another is season-opener An Enemy of the People, the scathing critique of absolute democracy written by Henrik Ibsen in the 19th century and adapted by Arthur Miller in the 1950s.
“I just thought, as we run up to an election, it’d be really interesting to investigate the big questions that Ibsen and Arthur Miller ask of democracy and of power and of media,” says Kwei-Armah, who’s only lived in the U.S. for a year, but has long been fascinated by U.S. politics. “They’re fundamental questions: Is the majority always right? How do we manipulate the majority? What is leadership?”
These are heady questions for a man who was once best known in his native UK as the star of an ER-style TV drama called Casualty, appeared as a celebrity contestant on British reality series Fame Academy (coming in third), and, in 2003, released an album of pop covers called Kwame.
As it turns out, all of that was just prelude to Kwei-Armah hitting his stride as a playwright. His fifth play, Elmina’s Kitchen, partially written during a trip to Baltimore, played in London’s revered West End, making him only the second black Briton to have a play featured there. Kwei-Armah’s relationship with Center Stage began later that year when artistic director Irene Lewis staged Elmina, which centers around a West Indian family in London, leading Kwei-Armah to refer to the theater as his “second artistic home.” In 2010, Center Stage produced another one of his plays, Let There Be Love.
“I feel really connected to this town, there’s something that chimes with me here,” he says. “There are social issues, but they’re everywhere. Part of being a good artistic citizen is using art to help with that.”
Kwei-Armah, who was born Ian Roberts and changed his name at 19 after tracing his family’s heritage to Ghana, has quickly taken up Baltimore causes, like getting angry when people assume the whole city is like The Wire.(“It’s so frustrating,” he says emphatically.)
He’s tried hard to reach out to other theater companies and arts organizations in town, including more DIY and small-scale ones. To that end, he’s made it a point to attend shows at the Single Carrot, Iron Crow, and Strand theater companies, among others, and started a reading series at Liam Flynn’s, which includes members of several companies.
That goal goes hand-in-hand with another: to broaden Center Stage’s audience to include younger and more diverse theater-goers. One of the things that drew him to Center Stage was that nearly 20 percent of the audience is African-American, which is higher than most big theater companies, and something he’d like to build on. He hopes that his challenging artistic choices and innovations like the media wall will draw in younger audiences too, but, like staging plays in the square and building a new facade, he knows it’ll be a slow process.
“I’m interested in getting our 18- to-30-year-olds in the lobby,” he says. “And at show time, if half go in and half don’t, I’m not worried about it. We’ll get them eventually.”
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