Over the course of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s seven-year run as artistic director, Baltimore Center Stage regulars have grown accustomed to seeing him walking around during previews, those first few times a production is performed before an audience. The tall, lean, and handsome Kwei-Armah can typically be found dapperly attired and casually milling about, as if just another theatergoer on a night out. On Saturday, prior to the second preview of “Soul: The Stax Musical,” his final directing effort of his tenure, he stood in the lobby surrounded by a small throng of people, chatting and having a laugh.
And as is his wont, after everybody was seated, he bounced onto the stage to talk about how much he loves preview audiences. We would be the second group of people ever to see this story of Memphis’ Stax Records performed onstage. OK, sure, some songs and scenes had been added after Friday night’s preview. And, yes, OK, there was one minor wardrobe challenge the night before, but he thanks everybody for being such a patient and adventurous audience.
Previews, after all, are where directors see if their ideas actually work. “You know, I often say anybody who comes to my first preview does not like me because you’re here to see me with my knickers on display,” Kwei-Armah says with a laugh during an interview in the Center Stage lobby during a rehearsal break. “You’re here to see it when it’s not working.”
“Ultimately, the audience is our ultimate teacher,” he continues. “Previews one, two and three are the most informative of any part of the process, more than the first read through, more than the last run in the rehearsal room, and certainly more than the last dress rehearsal when all the experts come in and tell you what works and what doesn’t work. Nothing tops the audience going, I like that bit so I’m going to laugh. I’m not sure that I like that bit so I’m going to yawn. Or coughing a lot, and that’s psychosomatic for saying, I’m bored. All of these lessons learned watching audiences are the things that make me love a preview audience.”
Listening, in general, is one of the things Kwei-Armah says he’s learned during his time in Baltimore. He arrived a celebrated 44-year-old actor, singer, playwright, and director who had never run a theater before. He leaves with a renovated Center Stage building and an energized Baltimore theater community, to become the artistic director of the Young Vic, one of the most ambitiously forward-looking national theaters in the English-speaking world. Baltimore Fishbowl caught up with him to talk about the music of black America, the theater’s role in the city and his time in Baltimore.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What drew you to “Soul,” this story of Stax Records?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Otis Redding is everything, and the moment that I was told that the catalog was available for production, I raced down to Memphis to see a workshop of it. And who could resist this music? Otis, the Staple Singers, Booker T and the M.G.’s, the music is irresistible—and not to mention Issac Hayes. So from the moment I heard this [musical] was happening, I knew that I wanted it, but most importantly I wanted it for Baltimore.
BFB: I ask because during your tenure here, you’ve touched on Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami . . .,” Bob Marley, and through “Twisted Melodies” and “Detroit ’67,” Donny Hathaway and Motown. What attracts you to these music stories that you’ve brought to Center Stage?
KKA: A couple of things, and some of it is theoretical and others is soulful. I would say from the theoretical, I arrived at Baltimore and unlike, for instance, New York or London, where very occasionally you can get big stars to come and play in your stories and that becomes an event, it was harder in Baltimore to do that. And why people are coming to the theater in big numbers is changing. They’re moving, I think, very much toward an event model. Having stars buried into the DNA of a piece enabled us to do that. Here’s a play about Muhammad Ali, here’s a play about Bob Marley, here’s a play about Donny Hathaway. The star and their music will keep me embedded.
So that’s really why I’ve been doing a lot of that work, in order to create some events to send messages that this theater is for everybody. I think the job of an artistic director is to create a mixed model, to have what we might call the high art, the challenging plays and the new plays, and have the musicals. You’re a curator, and you try to have something for everyone. Not everybody is going to like everything, but [include productions] that you might be able to bring everybody around to. And those kinds of musicals are great for building community.
BFB: I also get the impression that this music is from an era that you, quite simply, genuinely love.
KKA: Oh, without a shadow of a doubt. I didn’t grow up in the ’60s, but in the ’70s I was a child hearing Isaac Hayes. As I’m fond of saying, the black community in London is an outpost of the African-American community. We grew up listening to everything that African-America was listening to. It was part of our consciousness, and part of our sense of pride was bound with what was happening in African-America. So particularly the Isaac Hayes, the second act music [in “Soul”], is the soundtrack to my childhood.
BFB: Did the social aspects of the music also translate to London?
KKA: Totally and utterly. If the ’60s were known for civil rights, then the ’70s were known for a different kind of black rebellion, so the message in the music was part of what made it extra special. It was speaking to its time and to the energies of the youth of that time. Absolutely.
Also, the nature of race and the nature of spirit didn’t really change between America and Britain. They’re the same thing, just made manifest in different ways. That these people were speaking from a perspective of, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” that translated directly to our own experience. So African-Americans were articulating our inner needs and our inner thoughts alongside the reggae musicians out in Jamaica, who were also talking to our political and spiritual side.
BFB: Let’s come back to that discussion. I remember you directing “Things of Dry Hours” here, and Center Stage did your “Elmina’s Kitchen” in 2005 and the American premiere of “Let There Be Love” in 2009, so you had a bit of a relationship with the theater prior to arriving as artistic director in 2011. What attracted you to come here? At that point you were carving a pretty unique career as an actor, singer, and playwright.
KKA: I had visited here at least on three occasions, so I felt that it was my second artist home, and I loved Baltimore. So when the idea of coming in after Irene [Lewis] was floated, I hadn’t thought about it before, but I was bit like, This sounds really interesting. The notion of moving from just a generative artist and an interpretive artist toward also a curatorial artist is something that doesn’t knock on everybody’s door. And I realized that when it knocked on mine that it would be a wonderful way of putting all of my art in one space.
BFB: What were the challenges early on?
KKA: It’s a little bit like what I’m going through now with the Young Vic. You lay your marker and say, “This is who I am, this is the artist that I am, and this is the way I want to lead.” I think the mistake that I made was there was a vanity, that I was employed for my tastes. Well, actually as an AD you’re employed to serve the community. And it taught me a big lesson. It taught me how to listen profoundly to the environment that you’re in. I began to learn that lesson after a few years, and [my] first season I wanted to say, “This [theater] will be a discursive town hall. This will be about political ideas.” And the audience at first responded to a degree and in another degree went, “Well, I don’t really know if we want all of our plays to be that way.” So I quickly learned the lesson of meeting the community where they are and trying to give them some things that they may not have been exposed to.
BFB: Has it been a good training ground for what you’re hoping to do at the Young Vic?
KKA: I think life is a wonderful training course. Having been an AD here and some of the lessons that I’ve learned, I hope that I won’t make some of the mistakes that I’ve made and I hope that I will utilize some of the learning. But I learned everything about being an AD here. It was the steepest learning curve. I felt in the first three years that I aged at least 10 years, and that was not because there were any problems. It was because, simply, I was transferring skills, moving from an artist who creates work or reinterprets work to someone who has to manage a building and manage a community and interact with a community, and look at the financial health as well as the emotional health of the workforce.
BFB: Was this your first time dealing with large-scale fundraising on an institutional level?
KKA: Yeah, with it being my responsibility. I was on a development board and on the board of the National Theatre and another called the Roundhouse, so I was relatively used to the notion of fundraising and the board responsibility for that. But yes, it was the first time where if I want an idea, I have to go out and find the money for it.
BFB: And you also were part of the capital campaign to renovate the building. Were there any ideas, in terms of the building or programming, that you weren’t able to pull off?
KKA: I’m magnificently proud of the community that would fund this renovation in the way that they did. I mean, it’s magnificent. I am tremendously proud that we came in with a defining idea that we’d build a third space, and we now have a brilliant space. We had the idea that we would open the space up so that it was more airy and inviting. We’re sitting in a place where, when I walked in, there was bulletproof proof glass right here, which was the box office, and now that’s gone and it’s a bar. And the new head theater is beautiful. It’s world-class.
In terms of programming, you know, I’m trying not to make this into a kind of puff piece about how pleased I am as I leave Baltimore, but I feel very pleased about how supported I was by the board in order to chase after some dreams, in order to attempt to raise our profile within our community here, to raise our profile nationally and internationally. That we were able to send shows abroad was magnificent. That we were able to send shows to Detroit and sponsor them with “Detroit ’67” was tremendous to me. That we were able to do some of our video projects and our rapid response theater—things that amplified our reputation in the field.
Of course, there were challenges, of course there are always things that one wants to do that you didn’t like. I think my major regret is that I didn’t produce and direct “Dreamgirls”—that’s my favorite musical in the world. I’m a bit like, aw, man, when you’re an AD that’s the chance you get to choose stuff like that. I never did get to do that, but I think that might be my only regret.
BFB: You mentioned feeling how the black community of London is an outpost of the African-American community. As somebody who has known people of African descent who’ve come to America from other places, I do get the impression that the experience of race in America can be different than how it is in, say, Canada or the UK or Germany. I’m also of the opinion that Americans don’t quite have the same complicated awareness of class that people who come up in English society do. Has living in America, specifically Baltimore, informed your understanding of American culture and politics, specifically as it relates to theater, in any way?
KKA: I often hear my American friends and cousins speak about class being a British thing and that America is less class-ridden. I have not found that to be true.
BFB: I think in America it’s not that we’re not class-ridden, it’s that we don’t think it matters as much as it does.
KKA: Yes, I think it does, and I think that what happens in American is we often conflate race and class, and we reflect that in our statistics when we talk about education–we often go, Well, black education looks like this and white is that, without looking at the disproportionate numbers of people of color who are in the working class and underclass.
I have noticed something tremendous about theater in America. Before I came to America I didn’t really dig Shakespeare. It just wasn’t my thing because I found it to be used as an outpost of the elite in Britain. And I came here and I found it to be treated in a far more visceral, as well as intelligent, way. And it was something I saw a country have to embrace that was quintessentially born in another land, much like I have interpreted American soul as mine, though it is born in another culture. And that really excited me. I fell in love with Shakespeare in America. It was a big lesson for me.
BFB: I wanted to ask because you’ve also lived in Baltimore during a time when matters of race and class are once again part of much more demanding discussions. I know you grew up in Southall in London during the 1970s and ’80s, when there was urban unrest in Southall, Brixton, Tottenham. And I imagine living through such a time period as a young man is different than living through such a time period when you’re the leader of a large cultural institution in a city. How did Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Uprising affect anything you were doing or wanted to do at the theater?
KKA: One of the things that will certainly be with me most of my life is that our notion of America, for those who live outside of America, is that it is the most violent place on earth, where people are shot, raped and murdered every day, and you’re probably stepping over dead bodies. That’s that sweeping generalization, that you look at America and one thinks of violence, riots and civil unrest throughout the ’60s and ’70s and even ’90s. Those are the images that we have. Los Angeles burning down.
What was really interesting was that when the uprising happened here, I was the only person in this institution who had ever lived through a riot—and had, actually, lived through several uprisings. So what that did for me is it made me able to think about duty of care for our staff in a way that I know what this is. Yes, there is the National Guard and there are tanks and there are helicopters that I might not see on the British mainland, but I know what the energy is.
We were doing “Marley” at the time, and we were under curfew, and I would send everybody home early and then I would drive around after curfew, which is not wise, in order that I could get home and send everybody an email and say where you’re living right now, this is the activity you’re seeing. There’s a broken 7-11 there, but don’t worry about it. I was able to do that most nights and then able to think about the community, and that’s where we took “Marley” out to Penn and North and sang for some healing vibrations over there.
For me it was the pivotal moment. It allowed me to want to demonstrate to the community here in Baltimore that it wasn’t just words when I said that I was here for the community, that it wasn’t just words when I said this is an outpost of the community. We weren’t here just to serve the between 4 or 10 percent of people who walk into our theater. And so yes, it influenced the way that we programmed and it influenced my America, too.
I’ve never been one that likes to shout my politics. I believe in just do it. But intersectionality became a really important thing in American culture post-uprising as one began to realize and articulate that we were living in the equivalent of post-reconstruction. How do we contribute to softening the psychological blow of that? That’s art. Art is there to do that. So this became a very important platform, I think, for art as healing. When we programmed “Detroit ’67,” it was a year to the date after the uprising and it felt really important to do that. At the same time, we felt really important to have comedy and levity because people need to laugh. So it affected my sense of myself as a leader of a cultural institution and as an artist. I was profoundly changed by living here through that period.
BFB: Did this post-reconstruction awareness change any of your own ideas about what role theater can play in cultural life?
KKA: I’ve always believed that we’re part of the Fourth Estate. That may be grand, and part of the reason why I say that is that in Britain, and we’re beginning to see it happening here, but in Britain new playwrights are going, “Our job is to is to write the state-of-the nation play.” The culture looks to you to say, “Tell me what’s happening in our world now.” The result of that is that you have a social and political sense of responsibility. So, for me, theater has always been that. I don’t know another way. It’s never just sat within a narrow bandwidth of entertainment for me because otherwise I don’t quite know why I’m doing it. It is part of the way we report on the world.
BFB: Is theater in America performing that purpose? I ask because I think the older that I get, I believe theater can perform that function better than most other performing arts. But I’m not sure if outside of certain cities or certain theater companies themselves, that theater in America occupies that same sort of space in culture at large that it does in other countries.
KKA: My instinct is that the American playwright and director have also been writing the state-of-the nation plays, but through the lens of the American family. Whereas the European playwright would be writing the big political play about the politician. I think that’s changing. And I think I’m seeing that theater understands fully in America right now, that it is part of the changing of the way we do things. That it has a responsibility, because invariably it speaks to the people who have the capability to change things. It’s playing—on the whole, and we wish this to change, too—to the middle class and the upper middle class, those who have the facility to change that.
BFB: Did you have much opportunity to pay attention to Baltimore’s DIY/underground theater community during your time here?
KKA: I did a little. I would be lying if I said that I frequented them as much as I wanted to. But Single Carrot, I’m a big fan of. I would go to the plays that would grab me and that time allowed. I think, like every town, you’re only as good as your smallest and your largest, and I was really pleased to see the ecology grow and grow and grow.
BFB: What role should the biggest theater play in that ecology?
KKA: I think it plays a couple of roles in terms of soft power and overt power. In terms of soft power, there probably isn’t a small theater company in Baltimore who are not utilizing the skills and talents of the staff right here in some way—they might borrow a costume here or they might use some of the materials that we have. There’s absolutely that soft power, for want of a better term, or that shared synergy that happens in that way. I think when I first got here, I was far more active in making sure that we were reaching out to the other companies and saying, “If you want to meet with our head of marketing every month, come and do that.” I think I slacked off that, probably about year three, when I think I was facing some other challenges. I didn’t make it an institutional priority, and I think it’s because we started the capital campaign. But if you were to ask me if I succeeded or if I was proud of my record of serving other theaters in Baltimore, I would say I am not. Would I say it was a sin of omission rather than commission? Yeah.
BFB: Will Baltimore ever turn up in a play you write?
KKA: Right now, I’m amid processing what separation from Baltimore looks like for me emotionally far more than I am about how I might capture it on screen or in a play. I don’t know. I suppose I will. I have grown as a human being since being in Baltimore. I have been fed with so much love and support. Baltimore is going to come out in my art, period.
I would say this: Baltimore has made me a better director. I’ve done more since I’ve been here, and it helped me develop a process. I have a really clear process now that is more than just putting the work on stage, but it’s about how to create family. Now I have a really clear theory that I apply to every play that I do that I nurtured here. So that actually travels with me everywhere I work.
BFB: What are you going to miss—about Center Stage, Baltimore, America?
The very, very, very, very first thing is the people. You build families when you work in this intense way. People say, ADs, when they fail they fail by themselves, and when they succeed they invariably succeed by themselves. That’s bollocks because it’s a family. You build a team around you that enables you to affect change. My team that helped facilitate change, I’ll miss them profoundly.
There’s stuff I’m missing about America already. Britain, though getting better, is a culture that has been sometimes crafted to complain a lot. And I hate complaining. My whole life has been defined by as soon as I hear myself complaining, I get really bored with myself and then I run at the problem or the thing that I’m complaining about. And America, the can-do attitude, it’s magnificent. It’s about the quality of the idea here. You wake up and go, I’ve got an idea, and they go, OK, talk to me about it.
And my experience in Britain has been, I’ve got this great idea. And they go, good, good. Can we meet next month to talk about it? But by next month the idea will be gone, the energy will have left. The can-do attitude of Americans, I will miss that.