Actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah was born in Britain to immigrant parents from Grenada. His dad worked as a factory worker and his mother worked three jobs to send him to private school in the hope he would become a lawyer. “She wanted me to contribute to the upliftment of my community,” he tells NPR’s Michel Martin.
In 2003, he became the first black Briton to stage a play in London’s prestigious West End theater district with his award-winning piece “Elmina’s Kitchen.” The play tackled gun crime, displacement and racism in East London.
Kwei-Armah says the reaction to his work brought his mother around. “Someone came up to her and started speaking about the effect that my play had on a piece of government policy,” he remembers. “She turned to me and she said ‘you know, I wanted you to be a lawyer but this play writing thing, it will do.’”
Three years ago, he decamped to Baltimore to become artistic director of the city’s Center Stage theater. “I found Baltimore to be vivacious. I found the audiences to be intelligent and engaging.” He says he never planned to take up the role but, “it just felt like it might be a really fun investigation to put all of my art and all of my ideas into one building, and I have to say, I’ve been having a great time.”
On why there seems to be a ‘brain drain’ of black talent from Britain to America
On the surface, it would seem like everybody comes to America because it’s the land of milk and honey, and … many of us have been headhunted here. But actually there was a sense that there’s a glass ceiling in Britain for artists of color. It doesn’t mean that a good few of us have not been treated really well, I amongst them, I had a career and have a career in Britain that I could never have perceived I would have had as a child. However, there are many of us being, what we are calling, being pushed to the U.S., not even choosing but feeling like that’s the only option that we have in order to fulfill our potential.
On why being black and British in America gives him a certain currency
I remember once I was doing a movie actually and an American monkey trainer, to be exact, was just staring at my mouth for like 20 minutes while we were speaking, and then eventually he said, “How have you learned to do that? … to speak that way.” And I was like, “Err, I was born in Britain.” Without a shadow of a doubt, I think America as a former colony has a relationship with Europe that is quite reverential. And so the combination of someone of color having that accent sometimes creates confusion, and then actually sometimes gives you an extra benefit of the doubt. Actually nearly every black Brit that I meet in America sounds more British here than they did when I knew them in London. And I think it’s a subconscious thing which says ‘you treat me just that little bit better possibly, than you do your homegrown person of color.’
On what Black History Month means to him
Without Black History Month, I quite frankly, would not have been the man that I am. We grew up in an era where so little of our history was ever told to us, that when society said we will tear away the blankets, the mystique around who you were and who you can be, it changed a trajectory for a whole generation. So for me, Black History Month is personal and is communal. And the way that we are talking about it now, the way that you are talking about it now — so it isn’t just great African kings in a Budweiser series, but actually black history as to how it pertains to ‘we the diasporic African’ no matter where we are, be it the Caribbean, be it Britain, be it America — is absolutely perfect.
Tell Me More is observing Black History Month by speaking to voices with roots in Africa who are making an impact around the world as part of a global diaspora.