“There isn’t a taxi driver in Baltimore that can… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Kwame Kwei-Armah has a way of pulling others into his gravitational field, whirling them around and then depositing them in a place at some distance from where they started out.
People leave an encounter with Center Stage's incoming artistic director staggering a bit and with their hair mussed, but visibly charged up.
The 45-year-old Kwei-Armah, who takes over leadership of Maryland's largest regional theater on July 1 from Irene Lewis, was in town last week for a five-day visit. He met a range of Baltimoreans, from civic bigwigs to subscribers to leaders of local arts groups, and during the entire time, he barely stopped talking. Big idea after big idea tumbled out of Kwei-Armah's mouth:
He's told the board of directors that he wants 50 percent of the repertoire to be new works. For that matter, he has already selected the shows that will fill two of the three available slots in the 2012-2013 season. (The plays to be mounted during Kwei-Armah's debut year have already been selected.)
He hates, loathes and detests Center Stage's current facade, and wants to create a more alive and inviting space where people will gather to listen to a lecture or engage in an interactive media display.
"There isn't a taxi driver in Baltimore that can tell you where Center Stage is located," he says. "That has to change."
As the father of three sons and a daughter, ages 6 to 19, the London-born Kwei-Armah worries that kids attending American public schools aren't being exposed to the arts. So he wants Center Stage to sponsor a "monologue slam" for high school students.
He has even had a tantalizing brain wave that could transform Mount Vernon Place into a venue for warm-weather theater.
"Center Stage is not a two-space theater company," he says. "It's a three-theater space. There are the two theaters we have inside and the square around the corner that would be perfect for a summer show. We should be thinking about that. It could be wonderful."
Like many people with a compelling vision and enthusiasm to spare, Kwei-Armah tends to glide over potential obstacles.
Will a season of so many new shows cause his troupe to shed subscribers? Kwei-Armah hopes Center Stage's longtime customers will bear with him and give his plan a chance. And besides, nothing is cast in granite.
Does it make sense to attempt a major building project when the economy remains depressed? Kwei-Armah will make raising the necessary money one of his top priorities.
"Someone once said of me, and he meant it as an insult, that I want to sit with a problem for 10 percent of the time and spend 90 percent of the time on solutions," he says.
"I hate complaining. I'm very comfortable discussing what the issues are. I get very uncomfortable if I get to the end of the second or third meeting and I don't see any concrete, practical fixes being discussed."
Perhaps that's because when his own road got rough, Kwei-Armah never stopped moving, though he may have picked up a few stones in his shoes.
Kwei-Armah's parents immigrated to London from Grenada. He grew up in one of London's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. His father was a factory worker, and his mother took on three jobs (as a nurse, hairstylist and baby sitter) to pay for her son and two daughters to attend private schools.
But the neighborhood was dominated by skinheads, and Kwei-Armah couldn't go to the subway without fighting his way down the street. He has scars on his underarms and legs from knife cuts incurred during some of these skirmishes, though he never was seriously injured.
Typically, he plays down the violence.
"I'm not trying to make myself out to be 50 Cent," he says. "There are people who went through a lot worse than I did."
Also typical was the teen's survival technique.
As he puts it: "I was usually able to talk my way out of trouble."
The British literary manager, Nick Drake, says there's an apparent contradiction between his longtime friend's public persona and what Drake sees as "Kwame's complex emotional chemistry."
On the one hand, there's the ebullient face that the artist presents in his professional capacity. Kwei-Armah is so optimistic and self-assured, so filled with energy, that he makes others believe that they, too, can overcome all hurdles.
On the other hand, there's the Kwei-Armah who reveals himself through his writing, both in his acclaimed plays and in the columns published in British newspapers. These pages depict an outside world that seemed bent on making the young black men despise himself.
For instance, Kwei-Armah wrote in 2007 for the British newspaper "The Observer that when he was a boy, a female cousin supplied him with a surefire technique for streamlining a nose that the community had judged to be too wide and therefore too "black."