Actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah was born in Britain to immigrant parents from Grenada. His dad worked as a factory worker and his mother worked three jobs to send him to private school in the hope he would become a lawyer. "She wanted me to contribute to the upliftment of my community," he tells NPR's Michel Martin.
In 2003, he became the first black Briton to stage a play in London's prestigious West End theater district with his award-winning piece "Elmina's Kitchen." The play tackled gun crime, displacement and racism in East London.
Kwei-Armah says the reaction to his work brought his mother around. "Someone came up to her and started speaking about the effect that my play had on a piece of government policy," he remembers. "She turned to me and she said 'you know, I wanted you to be a lawyer but this playwriting thing, it will do.'"
Three years ago, he decamped to Baltimore to become artistic director of the city's Center Stage theater. "I found Baltimore to be vivacious. I found the audiences to be intelligent and engaging." He says he never planned to take up the role but, "it just felt like it might be a really fun investigation to put all of my art and all of my ideas into one building, and I have to say, I've been having a great time."
On why there seems to be a 'brain drain' of black talent from Britain to America
On the surface, it would seem like everybody comes to America because it's the land of milk and honey, and ... many of us have been headhunted here. But actually there was a sense that there's a glass ceiling in Britain for artists of color. It doesn't mean that a good few of us have not been treated really well, I amongst them, I had a career and have a career in Britain that I could never have perceived I would have had as a child. However, there are many of us being, what we are calling, being pushed to the U.S., not even choosing but feeling like that's the only option that we have in order to fulfill our potential.
On why being black and British in America gives him a certain currency
I remember once I was doing a movie actually and an American monkey trainer, to be exact, was just staring at my mouth for like 20 minutes while we were speaking, and then eventually he said, "How have you learned to do that? ... to speak that way." And I was like, "Err, I was born in Britain." Without a shadow of a doubt, I think America as a former colony has a relationship with Europe that is quite reverential. And so the combination of someone of color having that accent sometimes creates confusion, and then actually sometimes gives you an extra benefit of the doubt. Actually nearly every black Brit that I meet in America sounds more British here than they did when I knew them in London. And I think it's a subconscious thing which says 'you treat me just that little bit better possibly, than you do your homegrown person of color.'
On what Black History Month means to him
Without Black History Month, I quite frankly, would not have been the man that I am. We grew up in an era where so little of our history was ever told to us, that when society said we will tear away the blankets, the mystique around who you were and who you can be, it changed a trajectory for a whole generation. So for me, Black History Month is personal and is communal. And the way that we are talking about it now, the way that you are talking about it now — so it isn't just great African kings in a Budweiser series, but actually black history as to how it pertains to 'we the diasporic African' no matter where we are, be it the Caribbean, be it Britain, be it America — is absolutely perfect.
Tell Me More is observing Black History Month by speaking to voices with roots in Africa who are making an impact around the world as part of a global diaspora.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's February and it's Black History Month, and this is the time of the year when the U.S. acknowledges the contributions of people of African descent. This year, we decided to observe the month by featuring global voices, people whose roots are in Africa. Voices like that of my guest today actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah.
He was born in Britain to immigrant parents from Grenade who named him Ian Roberts, but he changed it after tracing his family ancestry to Ghana. The imposing name he took on in his 20's may have foretold his formidable career. In 2003, he became the first black Britain to stage a play in London's prestigious West End theatre district with his award-winning piece "Elmina's Kitchen." But three years ago, he decamped to Baltimore, Maryland to take up the post of artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage theater, and he is with us now to tell us more. Kwame Kwei-Armah, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
KWAME KWEI-ARMAH: Thank you so much for asking me. And I'm sure this has been said before, but what a beautiful voice you have.
MARTIN: Oh, well thank - but not by you. Thank you. So what drew you to the arts? I understand that you started out as a musician, and of course the acting and the theater. What drew you to these pursuits?
KWEI-ARMAH: I mean, I think it's always very hard - isn't it - to work out quite why you think something's your calling. But I think at the age of about 7, I'm told I started to sing a song by an American singer actually called Johnny Nash called "I Can See Clearly Now." And apparently, it goes that I was then entered into many talent competitions in the kind of West Indian community of London of the 1970's. And so kind of fell in love with the stage, and then everything else that I've done after that has just been a further investigation of what it is to be an artist, I think.
MARTIN: You know, I've heard interviews with you where you mentioned that, you know, your dad worked as a factory worker to put a roof over your head, and your mom worked very hard...
MARTIN: ...To send you to better schools to improve your life. And she wanted you to be a lawyer.
KWEI-ARMAH: She did.
MARTIN: So how did the fact of your becoming an artist go down with her - with both of them for that matter?
KWEI-ARMAH: Well, I mean, actually my mother, most importantly, is my kind of role model. Even though she passed 8 years ago, you know, I hear her voice daily. And I think she was OK with it. She finally really dug it when one day, we were going into an award ceremony, and someone came up to her and started speaking about the effect that my play had on a policy - on a piece of government policy. And then she turned to me and she said, you know, I wanted you to be a lawyer, but this playwriting thing, you know, it will do.
KWEI-ARMAH: So I think she was always very proud, and she was always very encouraging, as was my father. Her main reason for wanting me to be a lawyer was 'cause she wanted me to contribute to the upliftment of my community. I think that when she understood that I saw art as a serious contributor to the uplifting of our community, that I think then she became proud of that.
MARTIN: She sounds lovely. I'm sorry I didn't...
KWEI-ARMAH: She was brilliant.
MARTIN: ...Get a chance to meet her.
KWEI-ARMAH: Brilliant woman.
MARTIN: You know, your fifth play, "Elmina's Kitchen," really put you on the map in the UK in 2003. And then it also was the first play you stage at the Center Stage in Baltimore. So first, if you wouldn't mind, would you tell us a little bit about the play for those who have not heard of it? And could you also tell us why you think it worked on both sides of the Atlantic? What is it you think people responded to?
KWEI-ARMAH: Absolutely. We had a sudden spurt of what one would call then black-on-black gun violence going into 2000 in Britain. It sounds strange maybe to an American here, but, you know, guns was not a feature of British life. It became frightening and painful to hear about these young, black men killing each other in this fashion. And so I wrote "Elmina's Kitchen." It was set in a Caribbean restaurant in an area that was then called the Murder Mile, which was in Hackney. And it was really about a father and a son, and a father trying to say to his son that there are choices that we make in life and how you negotiate them is what defines you. So it was really my contribution. I - you know, I'm not a sociologist. I'm not a policeman. The way that I felt that I could contribute to the debate was to write a piece of art about it.
When it came to Center Stage, when I was even asked, I was really surprised because I'd written the play really for myself. So I was really worried about how it would play here in America, how it would play here in Baltimore, but because Baltimore is a city that has been plagued by such issues, it really struck a nerve. And we would have wonderful community gatherings around the issues of gun crime, around the issues of death, around the issues of elevation and how one supersedes their circumstance. And so I fell in love with Baltimore, not just because it gravitated towards my work, but it seemed like a town and like a city that was ready and wanting to discuss how it could elevate itself out of a world that was seemingly filled with violence.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage theater. He's also an actor and playwright, Kwame Kwei-Armah. You were starting to speak about this a minute ago - what did draw you to our side of the pond?
KWEI-ARMAH: I mean, Baltimore Center Stage had produced two of my plays and had asked me to direct a play as well. I hadn't seen "The Wire," and I hadn't seen "The Wire" in my own life. So in a kind of way, I found Baltimore to be both vivacious, I found the audiences to be intelligent and engaging. You know, I was asked if I would consider throwing my hat in the ring. You know, I had never planned on being an artistic director, and it just felt like it might be a really fun investigation to put all of my art and all of my ideas into one building. And I have to say, I've been having a great time.
MARTIN: You know, you are - of course, everybody has his or her own story. But, you know, it turns out you're part of a great movement...
MARTIN: ...In the last couple of years of British actors of color really making their mark here...
MARTIN: ...In the U.S. And you mentioned "The Wire." Idris Elba, of course, was a major star on "The Wire," which was a series set in Baltimore. He's gone on to star in a number of films and made a huge impression in "Mandela." And of course there's Chiwetel Ejiofor who's in "12 Years a Slave," and then David Oyelowo in, you know, "The Paperboy"
KWEI-ARMAH: And "The Butler."
MARTIN: ...And "The Butler" and "Red Tails" and so forth. What is it? What is it going on here that you feel that these actors and people like yourself, who are so well-trained and clearly, you know, talented are coming here at this stage? Why is that?
KWEI-ARMAH: I think the training is probably secondary. I was just in Britain actually in the Houses of Parliament having a debate with the government ministers about this exact subject, about why there seems to be a brain drain of black talent from Britain to America. And on the surface, it would seem like, you know, everybody comes to America because it's the land of milk and honey. And many of these actors and many of us have been head hunted here, but actually there was a sense that there was a glass ceiling in Britain for artists of color. It doesn't mean that a good few of us have not been treated really well. I am amongst them.
You know, I had a career and have a career in Britain that I could never have perceived I would've had as a child. However, there are any of us being - what we are calling being pushed to the U.S., not even, like, choosing, but feeling that that's the only option that we have in order to fulfill our potential. That's a really sad thing, I think, for Britain. A good thing for America, but a really sad thing for Britain.
MARTIN: But, you know, I have to ask about - I think that reason that that is surprising to some is that there is an impression, and we are often told that Britain is somehow a more racially harmonious place than the U.S. is. That it's not quite so stratified. Does that make sense? You know, people - in fact, you know, some of the European journalists are fond of saying that, you know, there is no race in England. It's all class and all these other things. I mean, obviously a lot of people question that, but is it more harmonious in social relations, but somehow less accessible in some way? It's - do know what I'm saying?
KWEI-ARMAH: Well, I would say - yes, I certainly - I mean, you know, it's a little like thinking about Paris in the 1920's and the 1950's. That so many brilliant African-American artists kind of went to Paris because they perceived that there was no race there, went to Europe and that life would be better. Only now, we look at France and we understand actually how many in France of color perceive it to be a really racist environment. I would say this about race in Britain and race in America - it is fundamentally the same. It just articulates itself through its national characteristic. So race in Britain, in terms of integration, particularly in London and our metropolitan centers, that we live cheek by jowl so there is far in this generation integration.
But in terms of the fundamentals of society, in terms of access to education, in terms of access to housing, in terms of discrimination, in terms of exclusion from schools, in terms of numbers in prisons and in mental institutions then the scepter of race actually raises its head, and it looks remarkably the same as it does in America. So I would simply say we're as - we always grew up in Britain saying that in America, if you were going to come across race, someone is simply just going to say, by the way, I don't like you. In Britain, someone would smile at you, and you would have to look at the subtext to understand that you were being discriminated against. I think that the old-fashioned idea that it's class in Britain and race in America actually isn't quite right in my experience. It is a combination of both of those things in both countries.
MARTIN: But you've also been quoted as saying, on the other side of the equation, there's something about being British that gives you a certain cachet.
MARTIN: Is that right? I mean, in fact...
MARTIN: ...I was reading this quote from you in the Guardian, which I found hilarious and I hope you meant it as so. You said, you know, all those stereotypes that used to attach to the Jewish community here of culture and education and learning have suddenly been attached to black Brits. We are given extra respect. It's hilarious really. We still cannot get through glass ceilings to save our lives back at home, but here we are natural Oscar contenders. You feel it when you walk down the street or into a room and start to speak. You have a currency. And is the currency your accent?
KWEI-ARMAH: Yes. Totally and utterly.
MARTIN: Plus your tailoring, which I'm sure is exquisite.
KWEI-ARMAH: Well - thank you so much for that. Today, I'm actually in a hoodie, but I will accept that.
MARTIN: Oh, dear. Wow. I would caution you against that. But - especially if you plan to travel, but that's another story.
KWEI-ARMAH: That's very, very funny.
MARTIN: So it's the accent?
KWEI-ARMAH: Yeah. Yeah, without a shadow of a doubt.
MARTIN: You never feel more British than when you're in America, right?
KWEI-ARMAH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I remember once, I was doing a movie actually, and an American monkey trainer, to be exact, was just staring at my mouth for like 20 minutes while we were speaking. He then eventually said how have you learned to do that?
MARTIN: Oh, my God.
KWEI-ARMAH: And I must have been like, learned to do what? He's like, to speak that way? And I was like, I was born in Britain. Without a shadow of a doubt, I think, you know, I think America as a former colony has a relationship with Europe that is quite reverential. And so the combination of someone of color having that accent sometimes creates confusion and then actually sometimes gives you an extra benefit of the doubt. Actually, that nearly every black Brit that I meet in America sounds more British here than they did when I met them in London or when I knew them in London. And I think it's a subconscious thing, which says, you know, you treat me just that little bit better possibly than you do your homegrown person of color.
And I think we all gravitate towards being treated as well as we can. But it's really interesting. Often, I have to challenge the notion that somehow because I am from Europe, somehow I have different traits to an African-American. And particularly for me, I learned most of my learning from the scholars and intellectuals that came from African-America. That came from that academic background and that conscious background. So it's actually very painful this separate thing that seems to happen relatively often.
MARTIN: But it's curious, though, because in an earlier era, the emancipated, enslaved Americans would often go to England to secure their freedom. I mean, they would go - like, that's where Harriet Tubman went, that's where, you know, Frederick Douglass, you know...
KWEI-ARMAH: Went to Ireland.
MARTIN: ...Champions went to raise money for him. And Harriet Tubman raised money there in order to secure the - you know, not just freedom for family members on a speaking tour to support her anti-slavery efforts.
MARTIN: So why do you think that is that now in this era British actors and artists of your generation have to come here to kind of get the professional respect that they - or the freedom really - professional freedom that they crave?
KWEI-ARMAH: Professional freedom I think is probably the right way and you're - that's absolutely right. And we've been complaining about the same thing in Britain for 30 years. Again, as I was in Parliament, you know, I was saying this that it was an absolute shame that my children and that young people in their early 20's are speaking about the glass ceiling in the same way that I was 25 years ago. And that actually it's incumbent upon Britain PLC to make sure that it harnesses its talent, that keeps its talent and it can share it with the world, but that people don't feel that they have to leave their country in order to get, not only the respect, but the opportunities that their talent demands.
MARTIN: Well, now that you're here in the colonies, talk a little bit, if you would - I'd love to hear about what you 'e hoping to accomplish there at Center Stage and just how will you know you've succeeded there?
KWEI-ARMAH: How will I know I've succeeded? By not being fired, I think. You know, it's been a great three years. It's been a great steep learning curve. I think, you know, I came to Center Stage and I said one of the things I wanted to do was to raise our profile nationally. You know, our audience numbers are growing. We've got a long way to go, but I'm feeling really resourceful here. I'm feeling that we're able to use theater as a 21st-century vehicle for entertainment, for fun, for debate, for political activity.
We're using our not-for-profit status to serve the community. And so long as I do that, I think I'll continue to feel engaged, I'll continue to feel that we're making progress and that I'm here, not to advance my career, but to serve and to grow as an artist.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, ending our conversation where we began - its Black History Month, and thinking about your own story, which touches, you know, Ghana, the Caribbean, Britain and now the U.S. - I don't know how we can contain all that in one thought. But I did want to ask if you would leave us with some thoughts about what Black History Month means to you or you would wish us at this point in our history to think about Black History Month.
KWEI-ARMAH: Without Black History Month, I, quite frankly, would not be the man that I am. We grew up in an era where so little of our history was ever told to us. That when society said we will tear away the blankets, the mystique around who you were and who you can be, it changed the trajectory for a whole generation. So for me, Black History Month is personal and is communal. And the way that we are talking about it now, the way that you are talking about it now so it isn't just, you know, great African kings in a Budweiser series, but actually black history as to how it pertains to we, the diasporic African, no matter where we are, be it the Caribbean, be it Britain, be it in American is absolutely perfect.
The celebrating of it, the making sure that though it is articulated in February, that it is serviced through 12 months of the year - that for me is what Black History Month is about. And that is how I think that we'll be able to pass it down to the next generation so that they can uncover and be motivated by yesterday, today and create greater tomorrows.
MARTIN: Kwame Kwei-Armah is the artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage theater. He was kind enough to join us from member station WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. Kwame Kwei-Armah, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KWEI-ARMAH: Thank you so much for inviting me.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.