20 Questions With...Kwame Kwei-Armah
Originally published on 9 June 2003
Casualty star-turned-playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose new play Elmina's Kitchen is set along London's Murder Mile, shares his insights about Celebrity Fame Academy, Malcolm X & the best way to lure black audiences to the theatre.
Kwame Kwie-Armah is instantly recognisable to television viewers as Finlay Newton, the paramedic in Casualty, but actor-playwright has many more strings to his bow.
As an actor, Kwei-Armah's stage experience includes Blues Brother, Soul Sister at Bristol Old Vic and Carmen Jones directed by Simon Callow, while his film credits include Three Kings, My West and Cutthroat Island.
In addition to the BBC hospital drama, Kwei-Armah has also appeared on television in the sister series Holby City and, earlier this year, made headlines by competing in Celebrity Fame Academy to raise funds for Comic Relief.
As a playwright, Kwei-Armah's credits have included Blues Brother, Soul Sister, Hold On, A Bitter Herb and Big Nose. Now a writer on attachment to the NT Studio, he makes his National Theatre debut with his latest play, Elmina's Kitchen, now playing in the NT Cottesloe.
Set in the notorious "Murder Mile" area of Hackney, east London, Elmina's Kitchen revolves around three generations of men: Clifton, who emigrated from the West Indies; Deli, his son, who runs the café of the title; and Deli's son, who Deli's trying to stop getting sucked into the yardie culture
Date & place of birth Born 24 March 1967 in Hillingdon.
Lives now in Muswell Hill (north London), for about the last three weeks!
Training I didn't! But I've just got my masters degree at the London College of Printing in screenwriting. It's a part-time course that I've been doing once a week for the last two years.
First big break It was a play at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester called Class K, by the actor/writer Trevor Peacock. It was directed by Greg Hersov and Braham Murray and was my first big acting job - I was 18 years old and it kicked me off in the theatre. Hugh Quarshie was in the show before me there, a production of The Admirable Critchton, and it made me realise that I liked this acting thing!
Career highlights to date The day that Nicholas Hytner took me into his office and said that the National Theatre would like to do my play Elmina's Kitchen. That was the greatest day in my life thus far. Everything else pales in comparison to that! Doing Celebrity Fame Academy took me from being that black guy from Casualty to being recognised as Kwame, but you didn't get a sense of what was going on in the outside world while you were in there.
Favourite actors Probably my favourite actor is Sean Penn, because the work he does is always challenging, he's a chameleon, he changes and there's real integrity to what he does and real truth. He keeps challenging himself - that's a wonderful thing as an actor to be able to do. I also love Robert Duvall, because he understates everything and has great power and charisma. My favourite actress is Marianne Jean-Baptiste, because everything she does is so truthful and centred and honest - I just love that in her.
Favourite playwrights August Wilson, James Baldwin, Anton Chekhov, and Arthur Miller are my favourite playwrights. Why? Wilson, because I love the truth, spirituality and cultural contextualisation of his work. Baldwin, because he was the first man that showed me that you can be true to yourself in what you're writing and yet be sympathetic to those that you're writing your piece against. In his play, Blues for Mr Charlie, he has a racist white character say, "I cannot allow these niggers to be uppity, otherwise my child will inherit less than I had in the world and we always want our children to inherit more." That was insightful, truthful and lyrical, and has always stayed with me. As for Chekhov: I'm a Three Sisters man. And Miller, I just love the way he writes. I can't even conceptualise it, but he writes for me from the hinterland of the soul.
What play by someone else would you most like to have written? The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe. It's one of the fundamentals of African-American writing for me.
As an actor, what roles would you still like to play? My ambitions as an actor are far more limited in terms of what I want to do than with writing plays. But one of the films I love the most is Deep Cover, in which Laurence Fishburne combines the complexities of human experience but expresses it in a really exciting, hip, fashionable, young and yet universal way. I would like to do something that would allow me to investigate that part of the black British experience.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently? Jerry Springer - the Opera - it redefined musical theatre for me. My next piece is probably going to be a contemporary gospel musical, but Jerry Springer just raised the bar. I laughed so hard from the beginning to the end. It was so clever.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of theatre? I'm not a politician, and I have very little understanding of the inner workings of funding and so on. But all I would say is that a civilisation is defined by its cultural output. So we must secure the institutions and the people who need and want and can create work that celebrates who and what we are and allows the questions that elevate us as human beings to be presented before the biggest audience possible.
If you could swap places with someone for a day, who would it be? I'm really feeling this question! It's very heavy! I suppose it would be Malcolm X. He was true to himself and was honest in searching to find solutions to the problems that he perceived. Whether or not you agree with them, he had an honest approach to problem-solving and was a brave man.
Favourite books Two Thousand Seasons by Ayi Kwei-Armah (not a relation) - an African epic on the proportions of War and Peace.
Favourite holiday destinations Thailand. I love the Thai, I love the food, the look of the land - it's so beautiful. I also like Grenada. The people are beautiful, the island is a beautiful place, and it's the land where my mother and father were born. I love going home and bathing in that from which they came.
Favourite websites Simplyscripts.com - as part of my screenwriting course, I downloaded so many scripts, and it's just brilliant.
How does your grounding as an actor inform your writing? It allows me to look at the construct of a speech, and be able to say: "that's a real mouthful, that's horrible to say". When you get a script, there are lines that fall off your tongue quite naturally - and then there are others that don't!
What [are] your other major influences? Being born where I am and being black and British at a time of great cultural expression, with a real coming-of-age for the British black aesthetic, informs me very much. And looking at the work of the great African-American playwrights, who are able to be culturally specific as well as universal.
Given your TV experience, what made you want to write for the stage? There's nothing like the personal. Theatre is personal, close-up, and in-yer-face: I can touch you, I can smell you. It's right there. There are only a hundred (or 200, 300, or 400) of you that saw it that night: that's a special thing that other art forms don't have. Every night is a different vibration. Theatre is the thing that moves me the most.
Do you think there's enough drama - on stage or screen - that caters for black audiences? The nation as a whole is struggling towards inclusion - we're fighting to be an inclusive society and seeing a real growth in that. But for me, what it's about is not creating work for black audiences, but work that is from a black cultural perspective - that's seen through our cultural lens. The best work is that which comes from the specific, but becomes universal. You attract more ethnic minorities to theatre by giving them work that makes them see their own truth on stage, in which they recognise themselves to be in what is before them.
How did Elmina's Kitchen come about? Jack Bradley, the National's literary manager, had read a couple of my earlier plays, and he invited me to do a writer's initiative. I went away and wrote a piece, Hooked Up, but it was rubbish. I got confused and frightened, thinking of writing for a National audience, so when Jack called me to ask for the play, I wouldn't send it to him. He asked me what lessons I'd learnt from it. I realised I was writing not from my heart but from my head. So I looked around for subjects that I could feel in my heart and spirit. Then one night I was driving down the Lower Clapton Road where I was living, and I saw a BMW smashed up around a lamppost - two young black boys had been shot and killed. I was so hurt and frustrated and angry that I wanted to write a play that had at its essence the idea that we as a nation and a community must find ways to supersede our circumstances.
What does it mean to you having a new play at the National? It's the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, and I feel tremendously blessed for it... and really nervous.
What's your favourite line from Elmina's Kitchen? It's something that Digger says to Deli: "But what's that going to do against my Tech.9, motherfucker?" I really like that because it's both playful in the scene it's happening in and is funny to me, but also allows us to know the parameters of this character and what kind of person we're dealing with.
What can you tell us about your next play? I've only just stopped doing Elmina's Kitchen re-writes and I feel a bit drained. But my next play is going to be a contemporary gospel musical - a bit like Amadeus meets James Baldwin's The Amen Corner - investigating themes of mediocrity versus genius, set in a small gospel church in Harlesden.
What are your future plans? I'm filming very heavily for a new series of Casualty that launches in September. The opening of the series is seen through my eyes and that of my partner Comfort, and it's like shooting a movie. The first two episodes are double bankers, they're tremendous and really big and epic and tiring, so that's keeping me busy now!
-Kwame Kwei-Armah was talking to Mark Shenton