London's new battleground
By Alison Roberts, Evening Standard
Originally published on January 15, 2008
Dramatic entry: the first British-born black playwright to be staged in the West End, Kwame Kwei-Armah says the country now needs a black actor to become a household name
Kwame Kwei-Armah has had to "adjust his ego" of late. For four years he has been the darling of London theatre, whose hard-hitting breakthrough play Elmina's Kitchen was the first by a British-born black dramatist to be staged in the West End.
Yet the critical mauling received by his latest work at the National Theatre, Statement of Regret - the third part of what he calls his "political triptych" (after Elmina's and Fix Up) - has left him bruised. Overly ambitious, the critics called it.
"I wasn't prepared for that really, just as I wasn't prepared for all the praise and success," he says warily. "You have to reassess when you get a bit of a kicking. As an artist, you feel misunderstood. But then you just can't say that without everyone around you telling you to shut up."
TV audiences will still know Kwei-Armah as Finn Newton, the big-hearted paramedic from Casualty who was killed off in 2004, or possibly as the measured, and often sole, black voice on Question Time or Newsnight Review. Telly still pays the big bills, he says, but the stage is where he's happiest, largely because he's given free rein to create what he calls "the theatre of my front room" - a theatre of ideas of the kind he and his friends debate at home.
On the day I meet him, at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, he is sitting in a set modelled on the front room of his childhood in 1970s Southall, complete with brown swirly-patterned carpet, an ugly cabinet in dark wood veneer and a hulking great radiogram upon which his parents played their selection of ancient LPs. This is where Kwei-Armah's new play - Let There Be Love, a much quieter, more reflective piece than Statement - takes place. "I'm so pleased I had this scheduled to jump into," he murmurs. "Otherwise I might not have written for a few months."
Let There Be Love, which he also directs, is a homage to his mother Theresa, who came to Britain from Grenada in the early 1960s and who died of cancer several years ago. (Kwei-Armah was actually born Ian Roberts but, having traced his family roots back to Africa, via Grenada, he discovered that Roberts was the name given to the family by a Scottish slave trader and changed it shortly afterwards.)
"My mother is still my role model," he says. "When I was growing up, she did three jobs so that she could afford to send her children to fee-paying schools. She was a nurse, a hairdresser and she ran a nursery, and twice a week she worked literally for 24 hours. She wanted to give us the best chance at a good education. That was the reason she came to this country." He credits her - rather than his father, a welder - as being "the principal teacher of my morality and my sense of manhood. She'd say, 'This is what men do. This is what's expected of you'."
In Let There Be Love, Theresa becomes Maria, a young Polish woman who represents the latest wave of immigration from Eastern Europe. "She has my mother's energy and her trust," he says. "She has come to claim a new slice of land and bring her children up here."
"The genesis of this play comes from walking down the street in Southall and hearing Asian men talk about 'these foreigners', the Eastern Europeans, who are 'taking the jobs of our children'," he says.
"I've begun to hear the same thing from West Indians, too, and I'm thinking, 'Huh?' On the one hand, they're claiming Britishness, saying, 'This is our country', which is a good thing. But on the other, it's like, 'How short is your memory?' I grew up when the streets were cold, when immigrants were beaten and stabbed and stones were thrown. So to talk that way about the new Eastern Europeans just shocked me."
Like his mother before him, Kwei-Armah, 40, worries about his own sons. He has four children - 15-year-old Kwame and 11-year-old twins Kofi and Oni by his first wife, and a two-year-old, Iyare, by his second. Though he has "crippled" himself financially to locate the kids in a relatively safe part of north London, he still lies awake at night fretting over the boys' safety.
"We are living in dangerous times," he says. "When my father first came to this country, if he was going to be attacked, it would invariably be by Teddy boys. When I was growing up, it would be skinheads. I worry about the fact that, if my elder son is going to be attacked, it will be by someone who looks like him. Someone who comes from the same cultural background as him. I'm also afraid of the markers of manhood, particularly among urban youth." I ask him if he's talking about gang membership. "Yeah, and what it's associated with. Guns and stuff. I'm not talking about everyone here, obviously, but about a small minority who set the bar."
He laments middle-class black boys "downgrading" their intelligence and behaviour "in order to be black". "They feel they have to act in a certain way, in a street way. What we actually want is the reverse of that. We want upward mobility."
What Kwei-Armah would most like to see as a playwright, meanwhile, is a black actor becoming a genuine household name. At the moment, he contends, there is no one - the fault not of black actors, but of conservative film and television executives and audiences who erect fake cultural boundaries and effectively limit what they're prepared to watch according to the colour of the lead.
"Name me a black British star," he challenges. I name three off the top of my head: Lennie James, Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo. "But none of them are household names," he says. "They're brilliant actors but they wouldn't sell a play." What we need, he continues, is a British Denzel Washington or, better still, a star of the magnitude of Will Smith. "We need brave artistic decisions and brave casting, and some imagination on the part of the audience."
That's made harder by the alarming brain-drain of good black British actors. The three male actors named above are all now working out of America, says Kwei-Armah, as are Adrian Lester and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays Mr Eko in Lost.
"Nearly every one of my peers, actors and writers, are either on their way there, or are waiting for the [screenwriters'] strike to be over before going back. It's across the board, nearly everyone. It's an absolute brain drain."
Yet he will not go to the US himself. "I am getting fed here. I get my commissions and I'm an associate [director] at the National [Theatre] and I can jump and do a bit of TV, a bit of writing. Also there's nothing like home, and Britain is home. It's what I write about. My plays will always be about black British characters."
It's an important pledge. You could even argue that in 2008 we need more than ever Kwei-Armah's articulate, dramatic analysis of those modern racial tensions we'd rather not confront.