Interview Theatre

Interview: Kwame Kwei-Armah Artistic Director Young Vic

Again we bring you another inspiring artistic journey which first appeared in the summer print edition of Alt A Review.

What a year for the newly appointed Artistic Director at the Young Vic in London: he was the previous Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage where he directed: Jazz, Marley, One Night in Miami, Amadeus, Dance of the holy ghosts, The Mountaintop; An Enemy of the People, The Whipping Man and Things of Dry Hours. Other work as a director includes: Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, Detroit’67 (Public Theatre, New York), The Liquid Plain (Signature Theatre, New York and Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Porgy and Bess (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) the Olivier Nominated One night in Miami for Best New Play 2016 (Donmar Warehouse) and One Love (Birmingham Repertory Theatre).  As a playwright his credits include 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 and Seize the Day (Tricycle Theatre).

He was Artistic Director for the Festival of Black arts and Culture, Senegal, in 2010. He conceived and directed the opening ceremony at Senghor National stadium. He is an Associate Director of the Donmar Warehouse and has served on the boards of the National Theatre, Tricycle Theatre, and Theatre Communications Group. Kwame was the Chancellor of the University of the Arts London from 2010 to 2015, and in 2012 was awarded an OBE for Services to Drama.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014 he was named Best Director in City Paper’s Best of Baltimore Awards and in 2015 was nominated for the prestigious Stage Directors and Choreographers Zelda Fichandler Award for Best Regional Artistic Director. In 2016 he was awarded the Urban Visionary Award alongside House Representative Elijah Cummings by the Center for Urban Families for his work in the Baltimore community. A remarkable start to his first season, we caught up with him just before the season started between travels, emails, chance meetings and varied modes of communications finally we got some answers from Kwame. Busy man? We think so and we think 2019 is not going to be any less busy, with The Tree which he has co-written with Idris Elba coming to the Young Vic and Death of a Salesman…. maverick or maestro you decide!

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Why I’ve changed my name, or as we call it in the trade, reclaiming my name, really I think I…I think I was really influenced by Marcus Garvey and Malcom X, and notions of self-determination, and it felt really odd to me to be carrying the name, and then passing on the name, of someone who once owned my family, and then…and I felt odd, it felt odd for someone who was really interested in what we now call identity politics and self-identity, and really it was that, that motivated me. And…once I’ve did it I felt that I’ve done the thing that my parents I’ve done, they have travelled four thousand miles from a developing country – economically – to the First World in order to give us access to the wealth, and opportunities of the West, and I felt that hopefully I’ve done the same thing with my choices, I’ve rerouted them and rooted them in a narrative that allowed not to have to look back but to look forward. That was the aim anyway.

KKA: I first discovered my love for the arts when I was about six-years-old. I was a singer and I used to love singing Johnny Nash songs, in particular, I Can See Clearly Now, and my parents used to put me into contests, my mother did, and I think that was weird. I found my love for the stage, but I think I’ve discovered my love for the arts…it’s just grown, and grown, and grown, it’s not really stopped, I don’t know if there have been a moment that I can just go “Oh, that’s a defining moment”…I think I’ve just appreciated the arts more and more as each year goes on, and as I have different roles within it. It’s hard to pinpoint a moment.  There was a moment when I knew that I wanted to be a good actor…I did a play called To Kill A Mockingbird in Nottingham Playhouse, I can’t remember what year it was, I remember then making a conscious decision to do that. I know I made a conscious decision, at about nineteen, to be the best singer-songwriter that I could be, and to make my music about something.

And then as a playwright I knew I made the decision to want to tell the story of my generation…again, I was probably around thirty-two. As you can see it just goes on and on, it kind of develops…so really, I have to say that the love of the arts started when I was about six…that sounds weird but, yeah.

KKA: What…yeah, yes…I did start as an actor, and I think what prompted me to write was that I got bored waiting for people to write the stories that I wanted to see…I think that’s the same as “be the change you want to see in the world”.

I didn’t necessarily write for me to be in the stories as an actor, but I wrote to tell those stories and to not rely on other people to tell my story, it felt weird to do that…And that’s what made me start. I think that’s why I might have started writing.

KKA: Will I go back to acting? Oh, you know, if a good TV part came up I think, you know, that will be fun, because I feel a little bit of a fraud still calling myself an actor, so I’m glad that you’ve said, “Go back to”, but as a singular motive expression probably not.

KKA: What is my vision for the Young Vic? Well I’m still working on it. I’ve been imposed for four months…I think my aim for myself right now is to increase quality of my listening, to listen as hard as I can and to place work on our stages, inter-sectional work on our stages, that’s be in the here and now, and work on our stages that starts pushing the boundaries of form and content. It’s a long way of saying…I don’t know yet. I’m still working it out…I know I want it to be exciting, and I want everybody to feel that they have access to the theatre, even more so. I’ve inherited a theatre that does everything that I want, and now I have just to make it grow and continue to grow, and I have new ideas about how it grows and how we help the industry as well as thrill our audiences.

KKA: I think the highlight for me for next season…the Community Course…sixty of our residents are going to be in our Twelfth Night singing and dancing along with those songs that have been written and they’re brilliant. I think I’m excited about The Convert…telling that story on our main stage. I’m excited about the history that it’s making, it will be the first time on our main stage that a Black female director is directing a Black female lead actress on a play written by a Black female, you know, I find that fascinating and lovely, and it’s a classic piece of work. I’m really excited our VRAR Project, where we’re saying…we are really sending out the message that whatever form you want to make narrative in, this is gonna be the place for you. So, I’m really interested in that. I mean, I could go on and on…but I’m just excited, period.

KKA: Nelson Mandela…when did I first become aware….that’s quite hard…I think I first became aware when I read the works of Steve Biko, but I don’t think it can be that. I think I’ve heard a lot about Apartheid as a child…I think I did just remember the first time I’ve heard about it, I was probably about 13 and a young Rastafarian was talking about getting on to a plane and going to South Africa and shooting up every person who was a supporter of Apartheid and I don’t think I understood what Apartheid was, so I went and I asked. I was so taken aback and frightened by his rage…I think that was the first time, and then of course, you know, particularly being a child of the 80’s – I was born back in the 60’s but I came to my political understanding in the 80’s – and I think plays like Woza Albert really took me into the South African narrative, readings and songs that were coming out of the reggae genre talking about Apartheid in South Africa. I thought, I really think that’s when I became aware of it, clearly in the early 80s, and it was used to underpin an understanding of structural inequality across the world for Black people.

KKA: My involvement in The English PEN was really…they just invited me and said, “Will you come and read some letters?” and I got sent the letters the day before reading them. The night itself was really moving, it was really moving because, you know, I …I found myself angered by the early letters and inspired by the latter letters and I was really taken by Winnie Mandela and all that she has contributed to the struggle. It was a night of pain and celebration and remembrance. It was a very…it was emotionally taxing evening. (The English Pen event was curated by Actress/Director Josette Bushell-Mungo)

KKA: If I was speaking to a young audience about Mandela I think I would say simply I would ask them to look into their own hearts and see if they have the capacity to forgive white South Africans in the way he did, he seemingly did, after all that he had been through, and I think he said. What he realised when he walk through the gate that if he didn’t leave hatred and the pain that he had behind him in that prison, that he would be a prisoner for life…and I think that’s an interesting thing to investigate: how do we become bigger than our pains? Can we become bigger than our pains and our hurts?

KKA: Why is it important to remember Mandela? Because he was a giant of the 20th century. A moral giant of the 20th century. You know…we saw Jesus, right? In our lifetime. You know, the people that we’ve been taught to revere in that way, they were dead, you know, Gandhi and MLK, but he was alive, we could see him walking, and breathing and smiling, but most importantly dancing.

KKA: What advice would I give to anybody who wants to be a playwright? Tell your truths. It doesn’t mean you have to tell your story, but you must find your truth. Say the thing that you would defend if said in front of you and use it to examine big questions, the big questions in society today and the big questions in your own life. Finding the big questions in your life, or the life that you observe can serve if you find the right way. I’d say be truthful, be fearless and be smart.

Read our review of The Convert by Black Panther star and Tony-nominated Writer/Actress Danai Gurira, the play explores the impact of colonialism on heritage, history and faith. Runs on at Young Vic – 26th  Jan 2019.

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