This time last year most people would have struggled to point out Kwame Kwei-Armah in a crowd. At best he was the ambulance driver from Casualty. But after shooting to stardom in Comic Relief’s Celebrity Fame Academy the nation now refer to him affectionately as Kwame. His stellar year continues with his debut play at the National, Elmina’s Kitchen, as Matthew Amer found out…
2003 has undoubtedly been a fantastic year for Kwame Kwei-Armah. Having spent previous years becoming a regular in the blood, gore and vomit world of BBC hospital drama Casualty, Kwame instantly became a recognisable face and a household name as arguably the most talented singer on the hugely popular Celebrity Fame Academy. But few people know him as anything other than an actor or singer. In fact, he has written five works for the stage. His fifth and most recent, Elmina’s Kitchen, is his first production at the National Theatre (Cottesloe). “The play essentially is about superseding one’s circumstance which I think, as a father, a member of an ethnic minority and a member of British society I can relate to.”
The plot follows three generations of a black family living in Hackney. As Deli strives to build a better life for himself and his family, he is forced to deal with the interfering antics of his father and his son’s descent into crime and Yardie culture. The storyline of Ashley, the son, is one that Kwame as a father of three feels very strongly about. “I find myself concerned with what I find in some – only some – but some aspects of the black community. Young boys are finding their blackness through a façade of criminality: You have to be bad to be black. You have to be down to be black. You have to smoke weed to be black. I think these could be contributing factors to this rise in gun crime that we’re finding ourselves amidst. I’m very concerned about that and from that concern sprang the play.”
“I’m quite political. I see things and I’m outraged by things and I want to have a voice. So I find a way of putting that voice into human experience. Rather than just get on a soapbox and preach, I think the best way to do that is to create work that expresses that [voice]. But then you bury it and allow the audience to discover it, if it is worthy to be discovered.” Kwame, the implausibly wide-grinned, ever-cheerful star of Fame Academy and Kwame Kwei-Armah the passionately opined and political playwright inexplicably fit together with ease when one should seemingly over power the other. “We are all three dimensional, aren’t we? There’s a part of me that’s very issue bound and there’s a part of me that’s about having fun. That’s why I think theatre is everything and can do everything. My theory is that theatre is there to entertain but even in entertaining we want to learn something. Theatre shouldn’t be limited to anything, but the theatre I’m interested in is the kind of theatre that’s challenging.”
"I see things and I’m outraged by things and I want to have a voice."
Kwame cites Chekhov, Ibsen and Miller along with August Wilson and James Baldwin as his theatrical role models, “they’re the boys that I respect, that I sit down and read when I’m lonely. Those are the masters for me.” The inspiration for his work, though, comes from his altruistic viewpoint on life: “What’s most important to me is that somehow we challenge ourselves to find the good in others. That is the constant challenge that I have to myself. That is probably the root of most of the work that I try to produce. I want to find that which is good for us to utilise as human beings.”
Elmina’s Kitchen takes its name from Elmina Castle, Ghana, where slaves would be imprisoned before being deported from the world’s largest slave trading port. The link to the play is one of inheritance: that which one father passes down to his children, gets passed on also to the next generation, and then to the next.” This theme of inheritance has had a key role to play in Kwame’s own life. When he saw the television adaptation of Roots as a 12 year old boy, he made the decision to change his own name from Ian Roberts, the name with which he was born and trace his heritage to find his African name. “In 1833 when the enslaved Africans were set free, they were given the names of their slave masters. I didn’t want my children to carry that. I didn’t want to pass that on. For me, slavery was an illegitimacy and I didn’t want to carry any more of that illegitimacy around on my shoulders.” Having traced his roots, Kwame took the name Kwei-Armah from the tribe of his ancestors, the Ga. The surname itself fittingly translates as ‘to find the way’. His Christian name, Kwame, means ‘one most ancient’, a fact “which I wont say when I get over seventy!”
"It has put muscle on my brain."
When talking about working at the National Theatre, Kwame’s eyes light up and his voice gets progressively more excited. The image is probably akin to that of a child who realises he’s actually living in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. “I can walk down the corridor and here’s Nick Hytner, man, and Nick Hytner is going to give me a view on something that I’ve written. There’s Jack Bradley, who’s a brilliant literary manager and has read a billion plays and is able to draw reference to a history of work. You go down the road and there’s Bunny Christie who’s this award-winning designer. It’s like I’m being mentored by a million people. It’s like I’ve been to playwriting boot camp, but also life and educational boot camp. It has put muscle on my brain.”
In the public eye Kwame’s biggest achievement this year will have been his stint on Celebrity Fame Academy in which he won the hearts of the nation, or at the very least the 10 or so million viewers who watched the show. But the producers had no idea when they asked him to take part that he had already enjoyed two seasons with the stage musical Blues Brother, Soul Sister, a production he also wrote. “To see their eyes when I started singing… It was very, very funny. It was a great moment.” But even with this pedigree behind him and ‘arguably’ the best singing voice of all the celebrities in the house Kwame did not win. Although people on the outside asked questions, he does not understand the hyped-up fuss. “I went in there probably the least known, and I came out as ‘Kwame’. I mean, hell, what a great victory that is. To be honest with you, ten years ago or five years ago there wouldn’t have been a black man in the house, bar Lenny Henry. There would not have been a black person in the house. That’s how far our country is travelling. That is the victory, showing that our nation is fighting hard and struggling towards being an inclusive culture and they’re doing that without legislation. That’s phenomenally important to me.”
"Our nation is fighting hard and struggling towards being an inclusive culture"
With the public interest and profile boost that came with through Fame Academy and with a play being performed at the National Theatre the year has certainly been a good one for Kwame. How does he hope to build on it for the future? “I want to be able to create challenging work, work that talks about themes and issues that are interesting and challenging. And I would like, in five years time, to be able to look at myself and say ‘I am fulfilling my potential’, that’s all I really want.”