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Editor’s View: Kwame Kwei-Armah’s appointment is a watershed

Kwame Kwei-Armah. Photo: Richard Anderson Kwame Kwei-Armah. Photo: Richard Anderson
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Kwame Kwei-Armah’s appointment as artistic director of the Young Vic is a landmark moment for British theatre. First and foremost, he is a talented theatre artist: a proven actor, singer, playwright, director and artistic director. Well liked within the industry, he also has some traction with the general public outside it, thanks to his early career in Casualty and a breakthrough appearance on Celebrity Fame Academy.

He is a product of the British subsidised theatre sector and the significant sums of extra funding put into the development of new writing under the last Labour government. From 1999 to 2001, he was writer in residence at Bristol Old Vic, and has a good knowledge of the UK theatre ecosystem, having acted at theatres across the UK – including Sheffield, Salisbury, Manchester, Bolton and Derby. He has written for the National Theatre, had a play transfer to the West End and directed at theatres including the Donmar Warehouse and the Birmingham Rep. He has served on boards of the National Theatre and the Tricycle Theatre and has run a major US theatre – Center Stage in Baltimore – and an arts festival in Senegal.

Kwei-Armah has a CV that few can rival in scale and scope. Overnight, he will become British theatre’s most senior black leader. While there are already several excellent black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders – both of building-based theatres (Madani Younis at the Bush, Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle) and of non-building based companies (Michael Buffong at Talawa, Kully Thiarai at National Theatre Wales) – the Young Vic is on another level.

In the past five years, it has established itself as one of the world’s great theatres and artistic director David Lan has emerged as a spokesperson for the British theatre industry.

These are the shoes that Kwei-Armah is stepping into. But there is every reason to think he can succeed. He is a great communicator – charming, forthright and engaging in interviews and unafraid to speak out.
Along with other leading black British figures in theatre, TV and film like Idris Elba and Cush Jumbo, he has previously talked frankly about the fact he felt he had to move to the US in order to further his career.

While his return to the UK does not mean those deeply embedded problems have gone away, the fact that he has been appointed to lead a flagship theatre is cause for hope that we might be moving in the right direction.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk