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Kwame Kwei-Armah laments UK’s ‘sinful’ lack of black artistic directors

Kwame Kwei-Armah, Ed Vaizey, MOBO founder and CEO Kanya King and John Kampfner. Photo: Nick Redman
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Kwame Kwei-Armah has lamented the “sinful” lack of black artistic directors in British theatre. He said he was disappointed to see the UK failing to improve in diversifying its artistic leadership.

The actor, director and writer, who is based in the US and is the artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, has returned to the UK to direct One Night in Miami at the Donmar Warehouse.

At a speech at the British Film Institute in London, Kwei-Armah said: “It’s hard being home and looking around at the theatres in Britain and asking, ‘Where are the African-Caribbean or African artistic directors and leaders?’ It’s painful that I can’t name very many.”

He added that the situation was not much better in the US, where he is the only black artistic director of a member of the League of Resident Theatres, the largest professional theatre association of which there around 70 major venues across the country.

“As it stands right now I’m the only black artistic director, which is horrible, but to come home and find it almost the same is almost sinful,” he said.

Madani Younis at the Bush Theatre, Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle and Kully Thiarai at National Theatre Wales are among the only non-white artistic directors of major UK theatres.

Kwei-Armah went on to say that it was a “joy” to come back to the UK, “switch on [the] television and see more faces of colour than I did five years ago”.

However, he said improving diversity behind the scenes in the creative industries was now the biggest fight.

He also spoke in favour of quotas around diversity, claiming that he was a product of former culture secretary Chris Smith’s policy to improve creative diversity.

Launched in 2000, the Cultural Diversity Network focused especially on broadcasters, implementing action plans aimed at improving ethnic representation both onscreen and behind the camera.

“I would say that it’s not a coincidence that every black playwright I now know came post that time. It’s not to say that we were better than anybody before us, it just so happened that the circumstance changed so that our art could be received in a different way,” Kwei-Armah said.

He added: “Do I believe in [diversity] having benefited from that? Absolutely, it should be hard-wired.”

He was speaking at the launch of the MOBO season, which includes a series of MOBOvation talks, of which he gave the inaugural speech.

The season also includes a series of curated films with the BFI London Film Festival as well as collaborations with the Donmar and Royal Court, on One Night in Miami and Father Comes Home from the Wars respectively.

Also speaking at the event were former culture minister Ed Vaizey and Creative Industries Federation chief executive John Kampfner.

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