After six months on the job as Center Stage’s artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, is as passionate as ever about his decision to come to Baltimore and his love for the city that he now calls his first artistic home. Factor in the appreciation shown by packed audiences for his debut play selection, Gleam, based on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, and his excitement builds. The play will run through Feb. 5.
Kwei-Armah speaks of his connection to Baltimore as a series of overlapping and interconnecting circles that have drawn him here. They began with a 2001 visit to Washington D.C. to see August Wilson’s King Hedley II, directed by Marion McClinton, which included a side-trip to Baltimore to see a production of Ragtime at the Morris Mechanic Theatre.
While in town, he also visited the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and, inspired by King Hedley, wrote the opening scene of his first big play, Elmina’s Kitchen. When he returned to Baltimore in 2005 for a production of the play at Center Stage, directed by Marion McClinton, things came full circle.
“My relationship to Baltimore… I can only explain it on a metaphysical level. I feel connected to this place in a way that is greater than I can explain,” he says.
“I feel that I made absolutely the right decision. Mainly because I do love Baltimore, but I love this theater… This theater has been part of my evolution.”
And, with Marion McClinton directing Gleam in his first season at Center Stage, Kwei-Armah says, “… the circles just keep going round and round and round… and I feel almost a spiritual connection… I feel purpose-driven.”
The accomplished playwright and director has experienced Baltimore as both and cites Center Stage’s diversity in its audience as a rarity in the world of theater and, for him, a great attraction. According to Kwei-Armah, one-third of Center Stage’s audience is African American, dictating that one-third of its programming lend itself to African American sensibilities.
“For me, as an artist of color, as someone who has worked in Britain and across the world, to see 10 percent of your audience to be black is extraordinary. Invariably it’s very little. But to see across the board — to have this representation — be it Harold Pinter or be it Zora Neale Hurston… I’m coming into an environment where I can expend myself and not deny myself. The whole of myself. As the artist, as an artist of color, as an artist who loves theatre, I can use all of me here, and there are very few other theatres anywhere in the world that can boast that. It’s a great attraction to me,” says Kwei-Armah.
As artistic director, Kwei-Armah’s focus extends far beyond the stage, and he lists finding ways to synthesize what is happening on the main stage with what is happening in the community and schools as a priority. He addresses the issue in weekly meetings and has met with Dr.
Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, to discuss ways to extend art into schools and how Center Stage can play a part in it.
“I’m a profound believer in an institution being a civic contributor, not just a place where you say, ‘What a lovely show’… That’s part of why I fell in love with this place because the work was not just about what happens on the stage but how it serves its community… The community and school work that we do is right at the core of why I’m here,” he proclaims, enthusiastically.
Kwei-Armah says that at a relatively young age he was told by his now-deceased mother (who he describes as his everlasting role model, everlasting inspiration and magnificent mother), “If you serve yourself, you serve family. If you serve family, you serve community. If you serve community, you serve nation. And sometimes, when you serve nation, without even knowing it, you can sometimes serve the world.”
He says that he doesn’t wake up in the morning saying he’s going to serve the world, but he does wake up saying he’s going to serve family, and family must serve community.
The model of serving community is ever-present in Kwei-Armah’s vision for Center Stage and is also a part of his formula for selecting plays. It is not by chance that the theater’s outside banner no longer reads Cool, Savvy Entertainment.
“We changed it to ‘Welcome to the Conversation.’ …I’m seeking plays – first of all, they have to be great plays – but I’m seeking plays that will be part of an extended conversation. …If I get it right, the plays that inspire me are the plays that will be great catalysts for debates. But, if the play touches it rightly, then you should be talking about it as you’ve left, on the drive home, and hopefully tomorrow and into next week — if we get it really right,” he says.
“When I describe this place, in my mind — I’m trying to create a palace of the word. It can be the spoken word, the performed world, the written word — definitely that’s the direction we’re headed in,” he concludes.
Tickets for Gleam can be purchased at www.centerstage.org/gleam/Tickets.aspx or the Center Stage Box Office, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202-3686?Phone: 410.332.0033