The world of Kwame Kwei-Armah

By Naomi West
Originally published: 12:01AM GMT 19 Jan 2008

Kwame Kwei-Armah in his home in LondonPhoto: National treasure,
Kwame Kwei-Armah

Kwame Kwei-Armah, 40, is a musician, playwright and actor. In November he completed his trilogy of plays for the National Theatre with Statement of Regret. His newest play, Let There Be Love, about a cantankerous West Indian man and his Polish cleaner, is on at the Tricycle Theatre until February 16. He lives in north London with his wife and four children.

Routine While we were rehearsing for Let There Be Love I got up at 7am, rehearsed during the day and wrote at night. Rehearsals finished about 5.30pm, then I went home, chilled out, did a couple of hours' work on the script.

Favourite singers When I was young I wanted to be a crooner, and Nat King Cole was the ultimate crooner. I decided Alfred, the main character in my new play, would have been proud to play Nat King Cole - he and his cleaner bond over music. The modern singers that made me want to sing were Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass and Bobby Womack, the big soul kings. I thought, you are a god if you can sing like that.

Early inspiration When I was 12 I was taken to Stratford-upon-Avon to see The Taming of the Shrew with Jonathan Pryce. It started with somebody in the audience jumping up and shouting, security ran down the aisles after him. I remember thinking, 'We've come all this way and the play's not going to happen.' Then up came the curtain. I was transported.

Writing inspiration I came to the Tricycle to see August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. I was 24 and it switched me to thinking about writing. Although it was so brilliant, I thought I could never come close, and it stopped me writing for maybe a decade.

Television The adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots was the biggest thing. It was on when I was 11 and I changed my path. It inspired me to start connecting myself with Africa and to find my true identity.

Travel I first went to Ghana in 1992. I remember it like yesterday. I was still Ian Roberts then [he changed his name after that visit] and I still have the guide book with 'Property of Ian Roberts' written in it and my itinerary. On the wall I visited Ghana again last year and brought back a lovely painting. It's all in yellows and whites, of three women. It has a very African sensibility, a lightness and a depth.

Most treasured gift My mother passed away a couple of years ago, and just before she died she told me to find her ticket from Grenada to England in 1962 and gave it to me. It was in the bottom of a suitcase and still in near-perfect condition. I'm her first child so it's an heirloom. I've framed it and hung it on my wall. It's the roots of me; were it not for that, she would not have met my father.

Books I'm reading a book about the American invasion of Grenada in 1984 by a wonderful historian called Richard Hart. My friend Naomi Wallace, whose play I directed in Baltimore last year, gave me first editions of James Baldwin's Blues for Mr Charlie and The Fire Next Time so I'm working my way through those again.

Indispensable gadget Apart from my laptop, it's my Sonos music system. It's a digital box that allows me to have different music playing in different rooms all over the house. I adore it. It's perfect for a house of music lovers.

Songwriting I'd love to have time to write songs. I still have lots of musical ideas. The wonderful thing is my eldest son (Kwame, 15) is a gifted musician and producer and he is remixing and rearranging some of my old songs. It's really bizarre: I wrote them when he was about two and he would be in the studio with me.

On the stereo I'm listening to an old Aretha Franklin album, Jump to It, that was produced by Luther Vandross, which is just brilliant. And also to Angelique Kidjo, a West African singer, and the original Aswad albums.

Favourite household object My table football. We have had it for about two years and play endless matches. I am the most competitive, though. I was playing my son Kofi (11) the other day, we got to 9-9 and I was giving it everything. When I scored I was punching the air.

Homecooked meal I could eat chicken with rice and peas and fried plaintain every day. Also jollof rice, an African rice with stew. I adore that.

Future projects At the moment I'm finishing one play for a West End producer, and starting another for the National Theatre and one for an American company, Centerstage, in Baltimore.

Evening I go to bed at about 2am. I'm used to sleeping for five or six hours - my body wakes up after six hours.

 


 

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