Monday, 2 October 2017

KWAME KWEI-ARMAH


I interviewed Kwame Kwei-Armah this year in order to put together a speech/testimonial for the the vice chancellor of University of the Arts London to read out when presenting him with an honourary degree earlier this summer. It's a bit cheeseball and to be honest I have no idea if this is exactly what was read out (I submitted the copy; they paid me; there was no feedback), but I thought I might as well bung it online in light of his taking over at the Young Vic as I don't believe it was ever made publicly available in any form.

The term ‘Renaissance man’ is a terrible cliché, but it’s hard to think of a better one to describe Kwame Kwei-Armah, who at one point in the last decade found himself simultaneously starring in BBC1’s Casualty, winning multiple awards for his debut play at the National Theatre, studying for an MA in screenwriting at the London College of Printing AND participating in that year’s Comic Relief Does Fame Academy (he came third).

Born Ian Roberts, Kwame’s formative years were defined by the incredible hard work of his mother – who worked three jobs to send him to stage school – and a growing interest in his roots and black identity, first sparked by watching Alex Haley’s landmark television drama Roots at the age of 13. Aged 19, having traced his ancestry to West Africa, he decided to change his name to one taken from the Ghanaian Asante dialect. ‘It was not a difficult transition for me,’ he says, ‘I felt a great sense of relief. Some people called me Ian for years after that, but I didn’t do it for them, I did it for me and for my children’.

His twenties were spent as a jobbing actor and musician and a new father, and they laid the foundation for his thirties, when his career took off spectacularly. He landed his most famous acting role, that of paramedic Finlay ‘Finn’ Newton in Casualty, which he starred in for five happy years, between 1999 and 2004. His first play, A Bitter Herb, based on the Southall riots he’d witnessed as a child, attracted considerable acclaim. But it was 2003’s Elmina’s Kitchen – an epic drama set in a West Indian restaurant on Hackney’s Murder Mile – that really cemented his name as a major playwright. After selling out at the National, it was only the second play by a black writer to hit the West End: a pretty woeful statistic that has barely improved since, though Kwame’s own One Love: The Bob Marley Musical is set to follow it soon.

If that doesn’t sound like enough work, he also did an MA in screenwriting at UAL’s College of Printing. He describes it as ‘one of the pivotal things in my life; what the course did was give me a toolkit for when success arrived, so I could write multiple projects at the same time’, though if he’s starting to sound sickeningly perfect to you then don’t worry – he freely admits he almost got booted off in the first year after he decided to turn in a completely different assignment to the one he’d actually been asked for: ‘I don’t know if they use the word expelled anymore, but I was nearly asked not to come back. I think the lesson is that if you’re going to break the rules, you need to understand the rules.’

He didn’t get expelled off: in fact, not only did he graduate, but a few years later he was invited back as a governor and then not so long after that he accepted the role of UAL Chancellor – ‘that came out of the blue,’ he says, ‘what an honour. That has to rank as one of the big ones.’

And that wasn’t all: Kwame was not a man to be confined to our little island, and in 2011 he accepted the job of artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage theatre, having pretty much bowed out of acting himself: ‘at my very best, I was good’, he says, ‘now every day I work with actors who are brilliant, and that’s on a bad day. And on my best, when I’m directing, I can be better than good. I had so much pride, being at that ceremony and shaking the young students by the hand – it was so inspiring’.

With an important role in American theatre, a West End transfer, a new Ibsen production at the Donmar Warehouse and some exciting film projects to come, Kwame’s future is looking as exciting as his past. But for today, we’re just happy to welcome back one of our own.

No comments: