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A season in harmony

Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah reflects on high notes in the upcoming season

July 7, 2017—Kwame Kwei-Armah likens the upcoming season at Baltimore Center Stage to “a musical chord.” On its own, each play is clear and full, representing a singular powerful note. “Together,” says the artistic director, “they say something.”

And the resounding polyphony, Kwame believes, reflects the “interesting historical moment in which we find ourselves.” For his last season at the helm of Baltimore’s premier regional theater, Kwame says, “I wanted to make sure that we covered a range of aspects of living at this time.”

The Mainstage season lineup covers faith, romantic love, childhood wonder, the challenges of the marginally employed, and even an allegorical look at totalitarian society.

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians (Sep 7–Oct 8), says Kwame, looks at much more than its storyline would imply. The tale of a megachurch split down the middle by a fundamental theological disagreement examines the fragility of leadership and faith, he points out. “What happens when there’s a crisis of confidence in any organization? What boundaries must that organization observe in order to keep itself whole?” he wonders. The Christians, which premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2014, and has had successful productions in New York and London, will be directed by Baltimore Center Stage Associate Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif.

Audiences will remember Hana’s staging of last season’s lush and entangled Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the previous year’s Pride and Prejudice. “Hana has directed two wonderful grand historic productions,” says Kwame. “Seeing her sensibility on a modern play is going to be exciting.”

The production will include several local, large church choirs, who form an integral component of the story playing out on the stage of the church itself.

Energizing audiences—whether through divergent ideas or sheer pleasure—says Kwame, has been a principle goal of his tenure as artistic director. When he first saw the stage production of Shakespeare in Love in London, “the audiences all left just feeling good,” he says. “It’s a joyous play that captures the heart.” That the play, adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, pays gentle, humorous homage to the Bard makes it that much better. (Oct 19–Nov 26)

Many of us remember Lewis Carroll’s classic tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a little girl’s fantastical—and at times frightening—journey down a rabbit hole, where she meets all manner of quirky characters. The holiday production of Lookingglass Alice (Nov 30–Dec 31) is a festive affair. “I want parents to come to the theater with their children,” says Kwame. The story, with its themes of dreaming, imagination and growing up, is brought to life with colorful costumes, physical comedy and of course all those memorable eccentrics.

Baltimore Center Stage produced Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 in 2016, and Kwame remembers his first reading of that script. “I was on page three and I said to myself, ‘Please, let it continue to be this good.’” Indeed, Morisseau lived up to that appeal, and next season, that magic continues with part three of her trilogy known as the Detroit Project. Skeleton Crew (Jan 24–Mar 5) tells the story of auto workers who face the threat of their plant closing. Kwame has described Skeleton Crew as “a state of the nation” play. “Everything we learned in the last election is in this play,” he says.

The voices of working class Americans are strong in Morisseau’s work, Kwame points out, and these voices will in turn challenge audience members: “What are their lives like and what will happen as wages stagnate and as they feel squeezed?”

Kwame says he is “overjoyed” to have Morisseau’s work on the docket for his last season. “I love her as a political being, I love her as an artistic spirit,” he says of the playwright. “Her challenging of the status quo is so brave.”

“A different state of the nation play,” according to Kwame, is George Orwell’s Animal Farm (Mar 1–Apr 1). Orwell wrote his 1945 novel in response to Soviet authoritarianism, but its dystopian setting has contemporary urgency. “Politics through metaphor is what I find interesting,” says Kwame. “And this play is a metaphorical look at where we might find ourselves as a society today.” Even so, this adaptation of Orwell’s novel, set on a farm that has been taken over by the animals themselves, is not meant to be too pointed. “You take from it what you take from it,” Kwame advises. “It’s not here to preach.”

A sixth Mainstage play is yet to be announced, but Kwei-Armah promises a musical grand finale to his tenure at the theater. Stay tuned in early fall for details on the season closer.

Kwame Kwei-Armah recently announced that he will leave Baltimore Center Stage when his contract ends in June, 2018. His final season comes at a compelling moment in history, and the lineup he has chosen for his sendoff certainly reflects these interesting times. From the anxiety of impending unemployment to launching headlong down a rabbit hole to falling in love, the diversity of experiences in the Baltimore Center Stage 2017/18 Season are emblematic of the broad range of theatrical adventures that Kwame has brought to Baltimore during his time here.