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When Center Stage announced its 2014-2015 season months ago, there was one TBA on the schedule. The company announced Tuesday that the missing piece is the world premiere of "Marley," a musical about the Jamaican reggae sensation Bob Marley, written and directed by company artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah.
The new work, with a score comprised of Marley's music, will close the Center Stage season, running May 6 to June 14, 2015.
"This will not be a jukebox musical," Kwei-Armah said. "We're investigating a man and his legacy. There is no place I have traveled -- Mexico, New Zealand, Senegal -- where I have not heard Bob Marley being played, particularly in the developing world. And there is not a week that I do not see someone in a Bob Marley T-shirt."
British-born playwright/actor/director Kwei-Armah was introduced to Marley's music while growing up, but did not respond to it right away.
"My eldest sister, from my father's first marriage, came to live with us in London when she was 16 and I was about 12," he said. "I was the young sibling who was very annoying. She loved Bob Marley, so I refused to listen to Bob Marley at all. But when I was about 20, I started to listen to his work, his words and his melodies. He simply took my breath away. I felt he was articulating my innermost thoughts."
Kwei-Armah, now 47, has been a devoted fan ever since. When he was approached in 2008 by theater producers in London about writing a Marley musical, he quickly agreed. But the producers could only obtain rights to Marley's music, not his life story.
"The project died," Kwei-Armah said. "The producers called me again at the end of last year, and now they had the rights to Bob's story. Again I said, 'Of course.' But I said I would not do a musical about Bob's life story. Instead, I would choose a period in his life, 1975 to 1978, when there was an attempted assassination in Jamaica and he went into a self-imposed exile in London."
When Kwei-Armah suggested Center Stage for the premiere, he met with resistance from the producers.
"But I made it part of the deal," he said. "To not do it here felt weird. When I took this job, I said I wanted to bring projects to Baltimore that would be special, that other places were not getting, and to try to enhance our reputation nationally."
The premiere will be a collaboration between Center Stage and New York's Public Theater, where Kwei-Armah directed two productions last year. Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, will be the dramaturg for "Marley."
The new musical, made possible through an agreement with Blue Mountain Music and Tuff Gong Pictures, will include songs from such classic, mid-'70s Marley albums as "Exodus," "Kaya," and "Rastaman Vibration."
"When it comes to our father's work and legacy, we have always been mindful in selecting the artists with whom we choose to collaborate," Marley's daughter, Cedella Marley, said in a statement released Tuesday. "We are thrilled to be working both with Kwame and with Center Stage to bring part of our father's story to life in a way that has never been done before."
Kwei-Armah said workshops on "Marley" will be held in Baltimore and New York in the months ahead as the musical takes shape. Casting will begin soon.
"Now it's full-steam ahead to try and find a Bob Marley and a cast that can do justice to who Bob was, " Kwei-Armah said.