Soap actor, serious playwright, and now artistic director, Kwei-Armah is still fighting to change theatre—only now, it's from the insideby Lyn Gardner / December 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s early evening at the Young Vic. Kwame Kwei-Armah, the theatre’s new artistic director, strides across the packed bar. A young woman standing near me nudges her friend. “That’s Kwame,” she says, and there is genuine excitement in her voice.
Well-known actors in theatre bars elicit this kind of response, but artistic directors? Not often. Rufus Norris would pass pretty well unnoticed in the bar at the National, RSC supremo Greg Doran wouldn’t garner more than a glance from Stratford audiences. But Kwei-Armah commands attention. He reaches a man on the other side of the room and engulfs him in one of his signature bear hugs.
Kwei-Armah exudes a confidence which makes him look as if he owns the joint. But it’s a confidence that briefly abandoned him in February when he took over from David Lan, the artistic director who, over 18 years, had transformed the Young Vic into one of the UK’s most internationally feted theatres.
“The first day was so lonely,” Kwei-Armah tells me, when we meet in an upstairs room at the Young Vic. “The staff had been with David for many years and ‘daddy’ had left home. I was full of fear.” That fear led Kwei-Armah to start out by imitating his predecessor. Before taking up the role he had approached several writers and directors “who were very much in the vein of David. I had been going to myself ‘what has David done? Oh yes, David created this kind of work.’
“Then on 2nd February, after that lonely first day, I woke up and realised I was going down a false avenue. You die—or you live—by your own impulses rather than trying to follow somebody else’s impulses out of fear. So, I had to call those artists and say, ‘I’m so sorry, I know I said I’m going to produce your work, but I can’t.’”
“Were they cross?” I ask.
“They were very, very difficult conversations,” he says quietly.
It would be easy to dismiss Kwei-Armah’s initial moments of self-doubt as the exaggerated fears of anyone taking over a big, high-profile new job. But that is to underestimate the particular place that Kwei-Armah holds in British theatre, and the meaning of his return to the UK after seven years in the US (where he ran Baltimore’s Center Stage theatre). Or the weight of expectation he bears.
After all there are not many appointments in British theatre, not even at flagship institutions like the RSC and the NT, which make the front page of newspapers. “I saw it and went ‘Oh shit,’” recalls Kwei-Armah. “This really is quite a big thing I have got myself into.”
The C-shaped hole
Raised in Southall, a suburb of west London, Kwei-Armah was given the name Ian Roberts, a name he changed at 19 after tracing his family’s heritage from Grenada, where his parents were born, back to Ghana. His father worked at the local Quaker Oats factory on the production line, and his mother, a nurse, took on numerous extra jobs including hairdressing and childminding, in order to pay the fees to send her son to the Barbara Speake Stage School. Even a stroke aged 35 failed to quell his mother’s work ethic and it is one that Kwei-Armah has inherited.
His energy appears unlimited, and he’s needed every ounce of it not just to overcome the barriers of race in British theatre but also of class. It’s always been particularly difficult for anyone not born into money to make ends meet on the here-today-gone-today pay of a jobbing actor, and a glance round the audience on an ordinary night in the National or most other big British theatres reveals an audience which sometimes looks almost exclusively upper-middle class. The Labour Party’s 2017 “Acting Up” report was not wrong to talk of the “C-shaped hole” in theatre.
Kwei-Armah’s early ambitions lay in the (perhaps less alien) field of music. His son, KZ, one of four children from two marriages, is a musician, and he says that one of his lowest points was his realisation that he would not have the singing career that he hankered after. (Although he would later get the chance to release an album, after winning Comic Relief Does Fame Academy, a celebrities-sing-for-charity television show.)
Kwei-Armah found early success as an actor, playing the paramedic Finlay Newton in the BBC’s hospital soap, Casualty, in the late 1990s. But he had also begun to write plays. Elmina’s Kitchen—inspired by his own upbringing in Southall—was performed at the National Theatre in 2003 and transferred to the Garrick, making him the first Afro-Caribbean British playwright to have a play performed in a major West End venue. He had two subsequent plays at the National: Fix Up in 2004, and Statement of Regret in 2007.
Honours began to arrive—he was appointed Chancellor of the University of the Arts at the start of the decade—but his next step was to leave for Baltimore. He needed to leave, he said, in order to further his career as a black theatre-maker. His return, and to a job which—as the Stage has put it—makes him “British theatre’s most senior black leader” is a marker in the on-going struggle to open theatre’s doors and stages to new artists from diverse backgrounds.
“You face a huge pressure as a person of colour running a building because you are expected to be representative as well as an artist,” says Indhu Rubasingham, who runs the Kiln theatre in Kilburn. “You are not allowed to just be good in your own right, you are also expected to deal with all the world’s and theatre’s problems too.”
She also worries that British theatre is not as keen on diverse leadership as it often claims. “It wants it within its own paradigms, and as soon as you try to shift those paradigms, you find people going ‘who do you think you are to do that’ in a way that doesn’t happen to white artistic directors. It’s an on-going challenge.”
Playwright Roy Williams, who was one of the few black writers to have plays staged in the 1990s, thinks there is still a way to go before we have a person of colour running the National or the RSC, but thinks that Kwei-Armah’s appointment is an important sign that the glass ceiling is starting to crack. He just wishes that Kwei-Armah hadn’t had to leave to go to the US in the first place.
“Like Idris Elba and so many others, Kwame got frustrated here so he went to America and proved his worth. I wish black artists could stop doing that and didn’t need to be validated in the US before we recognise their value here. We need more of a leap of faith in them in the first place.”
Both he and Kwei-Armah still point to the frustrations and lack of progress in getting plays by black writers into prominent theatres. “The number of plays by people of colour which have gone into the West End is not the only barometer of success, but it says something that my play Elmina’s Kitchen was in 2004-5 and it has taken until 2018 for Arinze Keene’s Misty and Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night to follow it there,” says Kwei-Armah.
He’s not surprised that some people are impatient at the slow pace of change. He tells of a critique he recently received from a black artist, mockingly addressing him as “Mr Diversity” and asking: “has Mr Diversity done this yet, and ticked that box? Why isn’t Mr Diversity looking after this section of the community?”
“I wasn’t offended,” says Kwei-Armah, “because I understand that part of the gig of being one of the first is that people want you to solve all the ills that have come before at the same time. They want great art, they want equality right across the board and they want the access that they perceived—rightly or wrongly—that wasn’t there before.
“In the end I just have to be me and prioritise the things that matter to me. I came into theatre to tell the stories that mattered to me in an environment that reflects the world I live in and make change. Art is the way I could look my mother in the eye and say, ‘I know you wanted me to be a lawyer and address social justice, but this is my way of doing it.’” He references his late mother several times during our conversations. “She was the person who influenced me most, and she still does every day. She was my ultimate role model.”
Deciding to return to the UK at this particular moment was about deciding where his energies could best be spent, despite more lucrative offers in America.
“I firmly believe that Trump’s America is an America where the role of the artist is more important than ever. But then I looked at what was happening at home and I thought that we are going through the same thing with Brexit, and England is having an identity crisis. I thought if art is my weapon, my way of serving, maybe I should be using my art back home.”
“Come on in”
That first difficult self-directed show in the programme, a moment which puts any new artistic director under intense scrutiny, has been and gone. Kwei-Armah’s musical reimagining of Twelfth Night, which relocated Shakespeare’s Illyria to the Notting Hill Carnival, was a hit, bringing in a young diverse audience who responded to Shania Taub’s music and the megawatt joy that exploded over the stage. On the October night I catch it, at one point I glance away from the actors and look around the audience and there isn’t a single person who doesn’t have a silly smile of pleasure on their face. Me included. Kwei-Armah has a gift of giving an audience a good time and, as he also proved with his production of One Night in Miami at the Donmar in 2016, gets the very best from actors and has the knack of giving an extra shine to the raw material.
The success of his first production says a lot about the way Kwei-Armah operates. Twelfth Night was created by opening up the rehearsal space inside the Young Vic to everyone in the building, irrespective of their role. It is how Kwei-Armah always works and is a breath of fresh air in the UK where rehearsals mostly happen behind closed doors and directors jealously guard their own processes.
Kwei-Armah says “it is important to me that whatever the capacity in which you are employed in the theatre that we recognise that you are making theatre. If you sit in admin it is easy to forget that you are involved in producing art if you don’t have proximity to the art and how it’s made. So, I say you are welcome in my rehearsal room, come on in.”
Apparently, it took a while for staff to understand that they genuinely were welcome, but on the afternoon I visit, a week before Twelfth Night opens, the theatre is full of staff watching the rehearsal. A woman wanders in and out with a baby belonging to a member of the cast, and the atmosphere is relaxed and jovial, despite the proximity of the previews. At one point in a scene in which Maria and Sir Toby kidnap Malvolio, an actor lolling in the auditorium chips in to suggest that if Maria mugs him with her handbag it will make the moment much funnier. Kwei-Armah runs with the idea and when I see the show a few weeks later I am delighted to see the suggestion has stuck.
“My mum taught me a lesson when I was about 19—she said, ‘of course we know you are good at arguing but sometimes I think you win the silence and you don’t win the argument.’ That has stayed with me. Those moments when you hit someone with the facts and they close down. That is the enemy to good management and the enemy to art.
“I need to create an environment where everyone feels free to make suggestions. It’s not always super smooth, but the best idea in the room is the best idea in the room and I don’t care where it comes from, we just need to find the best way of sharing it.”
While the majority of critics greeted Twelfth Night warmly, not everyone was convinced. Matt Trueman, Variety’s London critic, felt it had none of the innovation of form evident in work produced under David Lan.
Trueman rates Kwei-Armah as “an extraordinary cultural leader, and we need them in theatre,” but says the jury is still out on his artistic programme. He has qualms about whether it will breach “artistic frontiers in a way we are used to seeing at the Young Vic.”
“When I look at the programme I see plays such as (Stephen Aldy Guirgis’s) Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train or (Arthur Miller’s) Death of a Salesman which are good plays and well worth seeing, but it feels as if they have been programmed so people can see the plays rather than to see what a director might do with them.”
Trueman even feels things could slip backwards. Lan had set up an -innovative European exchange programme, with artists regularly coming from Europe to the Young Vic and vice versa. “Over the last decade British theatre became more interesting and theatrical because of it, and the Young Vic was leading the way. I worry that we will miss out on a huge wave of innovation which is currently happening on the continent.”
Community is everything
Lots of artistic directors recognise the importance of working with and in the community; fewer want to be actively involved in this work. Many see it as an add-on rather than as central to the artistic life of a theatre. Kwei-Armah’s commitment to involving people in the area is demonstrated to me in a catch-up meeting I sit in on between him and Imogen Brodie, director of “Taking Part,” a strand of work which makes theatre with rather than for the community.
“The thing I learned in Baltimore is that the community—and how you access all parts of the community—is everything,” he says. “Otherwise I am just playing within an echo chamber. Theatres are town halls and community centres and places where people should be able to walk in and speak their truth and shout their howl or just investigate the theatre that matters to them.”
But if Kwei-Armah is trying to take care of the community in which The Young Vic sits, he is also trying to look after the community within the building. A couple of weeks before we meet in November the story has broken about Anthony Lennon, a theatre director who was born to white Irish parents but identifies as black—and is in receipt of a paid traineeship that was part of an Arts Council funded scheme to develop future BAME leaders.
“I could tell that in corners of the office people were talking about it. So, at 4pm I just said to everyone, listen, let’s stop work, go into the common room and talk about it. And for an hour we did just that, and the young spoke about their perspective, the older about theirs, and the white members spoke about their access to the arguments and all of a sudden, we had an exchange and I learned something. I learned of the disconnect between the younger generation and older generation. One of the markers of success for me is about creating dialogue in which those in the building feel free to discuss our direction of travel.”
“Kwame’s willingness to open up these conversations is crucial,” says the poet and theatre critic Bridget Minamore. “We often don’t know our own history in theatre, what went before. It is a rich history, but it has been overlooked so having conversations between generations is very necessary.”
Minamore goes further, arguing that his presence at the Young Vic is ushering in wider change. “The very fact he is running the Young Vic expands our idea of what a cultural leader in British theatre looks like. That opens the door for others. Already since his appointment last year there has been a shift in the landscape. So, he has already had an effect just by being here.”
I think that he has too. Over the last few months there have been a number of significant appointments—Madani Younis’s move to become creative director at the South Bank, Matthew Xia taking up the reins at Actors Touring Company, Justin Audibert’s appointment at the Unicorn, and Lynette Linton taking over at the Bush—that suggest that British theatre is finally becoming far less white-washed. Kwei-Armah’s presence at the Young Vic is of a piece with that. He has made it feel possible for those who feel like outsiders to become insiders.
After his plays were staged at the National Theatre Kwei-Armah was invited to join the board of the NT. He tells me of a lesson he learned during that time. “I was having a conversation with Nick Starr (the then NT executive director) and I was railing about the slow pace of change and how theatre wouldn’t let us black artists in, and he said: ‘I just want to remind you Kwame that you are on the board of the National Theatre. You are on the inside.’ He was right. I had to rethink how I would fight and serve the community from the inside.” It’s what he is still doing. Every day. One step at a time.