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Mark Shenton: Kwame Kwei-Armah is breaking news and glass ceilings

Kwame Kwei-Armah. Photo: Richard Anderson Kwame Kwei-Armah. Photo: Richard Anderson
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Websites fall over themselves to be first with the news, though of course nowadays a piece of breaking news can get amplified so fast via social media that an ‘exclusive’ doesn’t stay exclusive for long.

Still, The Stage got a bona fide scoop on Tuesday when it announced that Kwame Kwei-Armah has been appointed to take over the Young Vic from David Lan: currently the biggest job, in terms of reputation, this side of the National, thanks to the spirit of adventurousness that Lan has created there.

Kwei-Armah’s appointment is not just a welcome return home for a notable London-born actor, writer and director who has been based in the US for the past six years, where he has been artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage since 2011. It is also a pretty large cultural statement – though one that shouldn’t be as large as it is.

As The Stage’s editor Alistair Smith has put it: “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 a speech just last year at the BFI, Kwei-Armah commented: “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.”

Now he will be able to name himself. And it’s true that I failed to identify him when I offered up the names of possible successors to David Lan back in June. I was taken to task on this at the time by Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, founder of Artistic Directors of the Future, here in The Stage, who accused my list of being “dated, lazy and is a prime example of how the industry contributes to the invisibility of culturally diverse leaders”.

I know I was being held up to prove a point, though as I also answered in reply. “This was by no means intended to be a comprehensive survey of everyone who might be eligible to throw their hat in the ring or who might be considered, but just a few suggestions.”

Kwei-Armah was already in a full-time artistic leadership job (only one of my six suggested candidates was), but my suggestions were hardly all “safe” choices. And, as I wrote, dismissing the likes of Joe Hill-Gibbins, Carrie Cracknell, Simon Stone, Richard Jones, Emma Rice and Tom Morris as “safe” was disrespectful to each of them too. “If there’s anything they have in common, it is that none of them are ‘safe’,” I wrote at the time.

Nor is Kwei-Armah. But he’s undoubtedly a popular choice – as when Rufus Norris was appointed to the National, he’s an already much-liked figure in British theatre. Yet he is also arriving with a big burden of responsibility: Hodge-Dallaway commented on Tuesday: “This new and exciting appointment will have a lasting impression on the many aspiring culturally diverse UK leaders who will witness, for the first time, a celebrated and much-loved black playwright-director step into the executive position at one the UK’s leading establishments located in the heart of London… this appointment plays a significant role to redress the balance of diverse representation in theatre leadership and beyond.”

I remember interviewing actor and director Clint Dyer in 2005 when he directed The Big Life at Stratford East, which subsequently transferred to the West End’s Apollo Theatre. He thus became the first black British director to direct a musical in the West End.  As he told me ruefully: “The wonderful thing about being black in this country is that as a black person you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things.”

He was right. Earlier in the same year, Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen also transferred to the West End from the National, and he became the first British-born black writer to have a play open in the commercial West End.

In an interview at the time, Kwei-Armah said: “Even though it [Elmina’s Kitchen] is Olivier-nominated and Evening Standard award-winning and all of that, there’s still a perception that a traditional white audience won’t come out to see a play that is quintessentially black. Somehow we’re all so tribal that they’ll just go, ‘Oh, that’s one for the black audiences, so we can miss that one.’ So I decided to do it, hoping that my Casualty profile might do something to help overcome that and allow this play to go out around the country and to be seen by more people.” In short, it was time to test whether we were finally ready to “break the glass ceiling of having a black British play in the West End”.

Now, 12 years later, he’s broken another glass ceiling. It has been a long time coming.

Read The Stage’s 2016 interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah

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