Kwame Kwei-Armah

This interview was conducted by the theatre director Jessica Mensah as part of her undergraduate dissertation research.

You can read an interview with Jessica here.

Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE became Artistic Director of the Young Vic theatre in 2018. He was Artistic Director of Baltimore Centerstage (2011-18) and Artistic Director of the Festival of Black Arts and Culture, Senegal (2010), where he wrote and directed the opening ceremony at Senghor stadium.  As a playwright, Kwame was the first African Caribbean to have a play produced in London’s West End (Elmina’s Kitchen). His triptych of plays was produced at the National Theatre, where he later created the online resource The Black Play Archive.

Kwame was Chancellor of the University of the Arts, London (2010-2015), is Patron of Ballet Black, The Black Cultural Archives, and Chair of Warwick Arts Centre Advisory Board.  Kwame was awarded an OBE for Services to Drama in 2011, and in 2020 listed as one of 100 Great Black Britons.

Whilst Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage, Kwame directed: Jazz, Marley, One Night in Miami, Amadeus, Dance of the Holy Ghosts, The Mountaintop; An Enemy of the People, The Whipping Man, Things of Dry Hours

Other directing includes: Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, Detroit’67 (Public Theatre), The Liquid Plain (Signature Theatre/Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Porgy and Bess (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), the Olivier-nominated One Night in Miami (Donmar Warehouse), One Love (Birmingham Repertory Theatre). 

His playwrighting credits include Tree (MIF, Young Vic), One Love (Birmingham Repertory Theatre), Beneatha’s Place (Baltimore Center Stage), Elmina’s Kitchen, Fix Up, Statement of Regret (National Theatre) Let There Be Love, Seize the Day (Tricycle). 

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Jessica Mensah: What was your experience of growing up with theatre particularly as a young black person?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: The first time I went to the theatre was to go and see a pantomime. My father worked at Quaker Oats and every year they would take the children to the London Palladium. I just remember us sitting in the gods looking down. The first one that I do remember was when I was between 11 and 13, my tutor, William Hubson led a school trip to see The Taming of the Shrew. It was a brilliant production. It started with a fight in the audience and then a curtain being ripped down, I was like, “What the hell is going on?” After seeing that, theatre then became a real thing for me, a visceral thing. But it wasn’t until I started acting in plays, that plays began to mean anything to me. I got my first play as an actor when I was about 18, and it was a play called Clash Point at the Westminster Theatre. It was Post-Brixton riots in the 1980s, I enjoyed doing the play, but what I enjoyed more than anything else was the post-show discussion. That’s where theatre grabbed me. Theatre of the mid-80s into the 90s, it grabbed me because I understood that theatre could be of service. It was there, not just to entertain, but it was there to discuss hot issues of the day.

Jessica Mensah: Did you go to see a lot of plays by black artists back then?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: There were comparatively two places in London that were kind of soft places where they would do maybe two or three black pieces a year: Stratford East and the Tricycle Theatre. It’s where most of the black actors worked and it was where most of the black playwrights had their work produced. I remember going to see many plays in both of those theatres. There was also an independent theatre company called Black Theatre Co-op, and they exclusively did black work. I would get to see a few of their plays. Now that sounds like a lot, but it was a bit like those were oases. It was huge desert otherwise, with only ever the odd black musical in the West End and there was probably something relatively negative in the portrayal of black people. We were pretty starved until the early noughties, when there was a conserted effort to get black plays into the mainstream theatres of the country.

Jessica Mensah:In 2005, you said that there was a “cultural renaissance” in Black British Theatre. Do you think this renaissance has recently returned, especially with the transfer of Misty and Nine Night to the West End?

Kwame Kwei Armah: I would say it’s a good year. When I got back to Britain, after being in America for a while, I went and spoke to all of the artistic directors and said, “What’s going on? Why am I seeing no new black playwrights or new black names on the scene?” And everybody said the same thing, “We can’t find them.” Or, “We do not know.” The same names were being spoken about, Roy Williams, debbie tucker green. It is literally in the last year that we are seeing Natasha Gordon and Arinzé Kene come out. So, I don’t know if I would call it a renaissance, we have something more to talk about in that regard. And those plays are very different, Nine Night is a naturalistic play and Misty was an abstract play. Barbershop Chronicles is again a different kind of play. I think it’s good to be able to see a new crop of artists/playwrights. I mean their work is produced in the main institutions and they are beginning to be transferred to the West End.

Jessica Mensah: Would you still describe yourself as a Black British theatre maker in 2019?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Absolutely. Black is a political construction. When I am in Ghana and everybody is black, I don’t need to describe myself as black. But in the West, where we are a numeric minority that is part of a global majority, here the word black means something. I don’t want to shy away from it. So I describe myself, absolutely, as a Black British artist. But I often think about the word black and it is as diverse as anything. For instance, I am a profound believer in Black postmodernism. There are some people who look at my season and they go, “Oh my god, Kwame is doing a lot of diversity.” But what they mean is colour diversity. But Twelfth Night was an all access multi-cultural piece of casting; The Convert was based in Africa and was about religion and based in what was then Rhodesia. It is a different kind of story to Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which has two people of colour in a prison who ask questions about faith, which is different to Death of a Salesman, which is a world classic play, which is different from Tree, which is a musical, and I could go on to Fairview… So yeah, you could be lazy and go, “Hey, there are lots of people of colour in these plays.” But actually, each story is as diverse a story as you would find if all of the actors were monoculturally Caucasian.

Jessica Mensah: Do you see the terms Black British Theatre and Black Theatre as having different definitions? And would you say that they are still needed today?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Yeah, I think they are still needed. They just do not have to be the only place that you can do work. If I wanted to, I could do a piece with Talawa, and that would be the same as me wanting to do a piece at the Royal Court. It’s about the audience, it’s about sensibility… but some plays are more right for general consumption and other plays maybe for just a black audience to come and take that in. So, absolutely, I don’t believe in the assimilation model, which is the moment that you are allowed into the mainstream, it means that you are black and so your culture has to fade away, a bit like the segregated self. The moment we were integrated we lost many of our doctors and our teachers, because everybody wanted to be part of the mainstream. These things can run concurrent.

Jessica Mensah:How would you describe the current state of Black British Theatre?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I would say there is such a thing as Black British Theatre. There is such a thing as a culture that is Black British Theatre, that articulates itself in particular ways. And those artists, invariably, are black and sometimes they’re not, and sometimes they are just influenced heavily by that. Jazz is a black music form, but there are some white people who play jazz and play it well, but it doesn’t take it away from it being a black art form. I think there is such a thing as Black British Theatre, and I think it is at a point of deep investigation, so you don’t just have to write a naturalistic play, you can go off in three or four different directions. There isn’t a prescription when it comes to the Black British play, and that is very healthy.

Jessica Mensah: Does the term Black British theatre describe the artist making the work or the work that is being made?

Kwame Kwei- Armah: I would say both. A filmmaker like Steve McQueen is a Black British filmmaker, he is also an international film maker and a global film maker. When he makes a film like Hunger which is a film about Northern Ireland, well, I would describe that as Black film because it is made by a black filmmaker. It is not it’s only descriptor, but it is one of them, it comes from him, so yes, I would it is about the artist. But sometimes it’s about the material, sometimes it’s about both.

Jessica Mensah: Is Black British Theatre just about the Black British experience or about bringing other works into that?

Kwame-Kwei Armah: No, Black British Theatre can be about anything. The political construction of Blackness can give you access to everything. I am tri-cultural, I am Black African, Caribbean and British, and I have lived sometime in America. I can tell any story that I want, and it will still be a Black British story. It will certainly come from the lens of a Black British Artist. My blackness, my cultural influences, will absolutely seep through into the narrative and shape it in some way.

Jessica Mensah: Scholarship and Black British theatre makers tend to talk about the instability of Black British Theatre. Is Black British Theatre now here to stay?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I think it is very hard to answer. But, with the advent of some of us running institutions, Matthew Xia at ACT, Lynette Linton at the Bush and me here gives stability. The perceived instability might have come from times when we were at the mercy of white gatekeepers who would then choose if we were fashionable, or not, in order to tell our stories. Our Blackness, or our cultural blackness, is part of what makes us artists, so it’s not about a fashion, it’s about what’s at our core. It has been unstable but I’m hoping that the new crop of gatekeepers will mean that it will be deeply embedded into the work that we produce.

Jessica Mensah: What barriers do you think still exist for Black theatre makers, in the theatre industry?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I think some of the barriers have been to do with gatekeeping and the kind of narratives that break through. Invariably they tend to be sociologically based, they can seem to look at the pathology of blackness, and if it doesn’t somehow fit into the world of the underclass or the abused, then somehow they do not make it to our stages. I think that’s a very big barrier, it may seem like it’s an invisible one, but it’s a huge one. How many of our plays are based in the middle-class, how many of our plays are based, not through the pathology of blackness, or even using the pathology of blackness in an intellectual way. I think it’s huge and that needs to be defeated.

Jessica Mensah: What is your aim as you programme the Young Vic, is it to get a new, young black audience into the theatre?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I think my aim now is to be reflective of London. Forty per cent of London are members of the global majority. I want my theatre to look like that. But then there are multiple audiences and there are certain plays for certain people. And there are certain plays that I want certain communities to see. There will be certain plays that I want young black people to be the people we are privileging and there are certain plays where I would want middle-aged white women to be the people we are privileging, and other times where I want the trans community to be the people that we are privileging. I would always want someone who is like me, who didn’t see theatre as a legitimate pathway, to come into my theatre and for them to feel welcome along with the interlocking communities of London. But, yes, part of my remit at the Young Vic is keeping the audience young and entertained.

Jessica Mensah: What do you think are some of the reasons for Black British women not being heard enough in our theatres?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I think it would be wrong of us not to perceive institutional racism and structural inequality as being part of the barriers, for anyone coming from a socially excluded or a group that have protected characteristics. We have to look at who runs the theatres and who the gatekeepers are. We have to look at what kind of voices are accepted, and what kind of stories are accepted. I am interested in the effect the Bechdel Test has had on narratives. Does the play have at least two women in it? Do they talk to each other about something besides a man? Because I am a Black British man of African and Caribbean descent, I receive many approaches from writers, agents and producers with narratives from those intersecting communities, and, although I have no problem with that, I want to share the primary lens I read and assess those works through:

  • Has the black male abandoned or is in the process of abandoning his offspring?
  • Has the black male or a black male, physically or sexually abused a character in the narrative?
  • Do the women in the narrative see the black male as the obstacle they need to overcome to achieve freedom?
  • Does the black male have an ally in the narrative to counterbalance his impact?
  • Is the question being asked by the narrative big or urgent enough to counter all the above?

And for the female characters:

  • Is the black woman described in some sort of fashion as having an attitude i.e. tough, sassy, takes no prisoners?
  • Is the black woman’s character hypersexualised?
  • Has she been sexually or physically abused?
  • Is she a vessel for another ally’s narrative?
  • Is the black woman a single mother?
  • Is the question being asked by the narrative big or urgent enough to counter all of the above?

The most important question for me in both categories is that last one: Is the question being asked by the narrative big or urgent enough to counter all of the above? If it is not, I probably will not produce it.

Jessica Mensah: Do you believe that a new distinct voice in Black British Theatre is still coming through in recent work made by Black British artists?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I do, I do. I mean Misty is one of them right? It’s an abstract piece that speaks to the here and now, totally and utterly. And the work I get to read, I am hearing really distinct approaches to telling their story. There was a time when the only stories I heard were the stories of the underclass and that really bored me. It’s like I just don’t want to see it anymore, I am hearing about my pathology all of the time and I don’t want to do it. I want access to different kinds of stories.

Jessica Mensah: Your writing, particularly Elmina’s Kitchen and Fix up, tends to educate a young black audience about their history and allows them to see a reflection of themselves. Do you think that this is something that still needs to be pushed within Black British Theatre work being made today?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I don’t know. That’s what I choose to do, and other people may educate in different ways. History may not be the thing, it may be about thinking about the future as a metaphor. I know, for me, I come into theatre and the arts to incrementally make the world better, step by step. So, reflecting our history, much of our stolen history and negotiable history is important to me, but it’s not the only way.

This interview was conducted by the theatre director Jessica Mensah as part of her undergraduate dissertation research. Download it below:

You can read an interview with Jessica here.