Kwame Kwei-Armah: Diversifying theatre

"A Man for All Seasons"

The honing of the Young Vic Theatre as an icon of London’s artistic counterculture has come as a continuous process of reinvention. However, if there is one facet that has remained constant, it’s the Young Vic’s silent revolutionary appeal. Case in point, the nomination of Kwame Kwei-Armah as its new artistic director, following David Lan’s retirement after a decade long direction of the Young Vic.

Performance art is often described as “hideously white” so the appointment of Kwei-Armah to an institution such as the Young Vic is a powerful step. Kwei-Armah joins Madani Younis, Indu Rubasingham, and Kelly Thiarai, as the only four people of colour to spearhead the artistic direction of major national theatres—the Bush, the Tricycle, and the National Theatre of Wales, respectively. However, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s appointment is neither a token gesture of increasing diversification in British Theatre, nor a signal that the appointment process of new directors to British notorious theatrical institutions has turned colour-blind.

Operation Black Vote’s recent The Colour of Power project with the Guardian and Green Park Recruitment, highlighted zero Black and Minority Ethnic representation in the biggest institutions of arts and culture. Simply put, out of 20 CEOs of Arts and Culture Organizations, 0% are BME.

To understand the significance of this appointment one must look no further than at Kwame Kwei-Armah himself. He is only the second black British playwright to ever write prose performed at the National Theatre in London. And in his fifth play, “Elmina’s Kitchen”, he unveiled a stark, but provocative portrayal of familial and social dynamics on Hackney’s Murder Mile.

If the play challenges the audience to realize their own culpability as accomplices of a broken structure and ultimately to an uncomfortable catharsis — Kwei-Armah himself is that same challenge to the British theatrical institutions. Elements throughout his life and career speak to the portent of his persona, not only in the theatrical world, but also for black leadership in culture and the arts.

Far from a small symbolic feat, Ian Roberts changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah after tracing his ancestry through genealogy of the slave trade out of Ghana. Changing a name turned into a deeply powerful moment of re-appropriation of African history, and a de-facto middle-finger to the process of whitewashing black history in the UK.

But we must also remember that whilst Kwei-Armah is finely tuned to the political and social relevance of his position as a black theatre director, he demand not to be solely defined by it. He was appointed new artistic director of the Young Vic because his artistic expression and vision deserved it--not to be the poster boy for inclusion. Recipient of knighthood to the OBE for his contributions to the arts, and a friend of Operation Black Vote, Kwame's newfound appointment is all-deserving.

It is also interesting that this Black British talent like many before him had to gain recognition in the United States to then prove their worth as either lead actor or director in the United Kingdom. Kwame Kwei-Armah has spent the past 6 years in Baltimore as Director of the Baltimore Center Stage.

This is a historical step for the Young Vic, a theatre that has stood the test of time as the silent backdrop for the expression of social turmoil and change. However, as an institution that prides itself for being both an icon and iconoclastic, it's hard not to imagine that this step will cement it as the former than the latter.


By Maria Julia Pieraccioni, OBV Intern