Recoup Some Corner of the Universe

The artistic director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah, on the necessity of theatre

Photography Suzie Howell

Tom Bolger: Why does theatre remain an essential art form?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Theatre is the seeing and smelling of sweat, feeling the funk, of seeing yourself reflected in three dimensions. I’ve had to think about your question profoundly this year, at a time when technology has played such a dominant role in our lives. One of the biggest disasters has been the loss of haptic exchange – feeling the heart of someone else when you hug them, shaking a hand and feeling someone’s energy. These acts literally increase your life. I cannot think of a better artform then live performance – dancing with the sensibilities of another human being – to keep us in touch with who we really are. We’re going to need these citadels, homes of communion and joy, more than ever.

Do you come across people who say it just isn’t for them?

All the time. Sometimes it’s articulated explicitly and other times it’s through the body, eyes going blank when you start to talk. All of us in the ‘high arts’ wish it was the ‘popular arts’. It’s a beautiful thing to be reviewed and have the middle classes assign value to what you do, but we’re not into serving the 10 per cent; we’re here to evangelise the power of seeing yourself through others. There’s a play or musical out there for everyone that can make them a believer.

It was the Young Vic’s 50th anniversary in 2020, and, I assume, one of its hardest years to date..?

In this pandemic, you don’t know where and when you’re going to land on the other side. We worked throughout to keep buoyant, keeping staff on with hardship funds, working with hundreds of freelancers through our Directors Program, as well as arguing our position to the government, which meant we were rewarded nearly a million pounds from the Culture Recovery Fund. Existentially, that saved us; it enabled us to plan the new season that we hope will grace our stages and digital platforms within the next year. 2020 was debilitating. I’d be creating a false narrative if I said it hasn’t been bloody hard.

Photography Philip Vile

How does the wider industry come back stronger from this?

We won’t know what the new normal is because it defines itself on a moment-by-moment basis. A new contract needs to be established between theatres and the freelance community where we’re both giving an account of why and what we’re doing, in a more transparent way. ‘Building back better’ means greater collaboration in a less opaque manner.

In the digital realm, we must prove that we’ve used this time to think about how to innovate and reach the maximum audience possible while protecting the mothership. The reason I didn’t want the Young Vic to race headlong into digital projects is because I only want that work as a by-product, not as the product. It has to be in juxtaposition to what is happening on stage, in order to drive people to it. What do we lose when that live call-and-response feedback is absent? Theatre cannot live by monologue alone.

Finally, television and film have now become – the former in particular – the default setting for most of our writing talent. Within five years it will be seriously hard to get new writing for our stages; we’ll be decimated unless things change. Previously, theatre was the site where a writer would come and find their soul – television has replaced that. It’s the new novel, the new theatre, and, crucially, it ensures they can make a living. We are going to have to devise methods by which to attract that talent back, or share them with our televisual friends. That’s going to dictate a brand-new way of partnerships and programming.

As the first African-Caribbean director of a major UK theatre, you’ve said your job is not “to pull the ladder up but to open the building”. Does making history make the weight of responsibility that much heavier?

Responsibility is not a burden to me, and I seldom worry about being a first, because I’ve been blessed to have been so a few times. That said, when I had my first recognisable first, I was tremendously humbled. I’m a history buff, so when my mother could go and see Elmina’s Kitchen – the first African-Caribbean play to come to the West End – that touched me deeply. But as soon as that had been done, it disappeared as meaning anything other than: What do I do with it? What does this access allow me to build? I established the Black Plays Archive at the National Theatre because of that momentum, and that is one of the proudest things I’ve achieved in my life because it means no Black British playwright will be able to feel that they’re the first person ever again; they’ll be able to see professional work that goes back to the turn of the 20th century.

At the Young Vic, I’ve been throwing down ladders in as radical a fashion as possible – administratively, artistically – to how we serve our communities. We’re trying to make sure our staff and audiences look like London. Before COVID-19, I’d describe much of our programme as Black postmodernism, to quote Gloria Jean Watkins; that actually Black people can do everything, anything, and race doesn’t have to be the major driver. We’re not asking that culture be divorced from art, but from Hamlet to Bronx Gothic, I want performers of colour to lead work that isn’t about Blackness, but allows it to simply be a part of what they do. We’re constantly creating projects with our neighbours in Lambeth and Southwark, taking our work directly to local schools or working-class communities with YV Unpacked, because we believe these connections enhance what we produce.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Bronx Gothic

Last year you signed open letters to UK theatre, TV and film, advocating for better representation. What steps require action today, not tomorrow?

I find self-flagellation or beating people up is secondary to doing the do. I can describe our conversations around diversity on stage, in front of and behind the camera, as negotiation with our children. We have to be mindful of alienating anyone, and in real truth, straight white males are under the cosh not even necessarily because of their peers, but because of the sins of their fathers. I’m trying to make sure that my children and my grandchildren don’t ever have the same debates that I’m having. Our job is to stop this discussion from having any validity. If we don’t start everything now, we will not solve this problem of diversity and inclusion. We must give away power so that power can continue to give itself away in as wide, broad and deep a process as possible.

Photography Suzie Howell

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

Kwame Kwei-Armah

­­Port talks to the artistic director of the Young Vic about his latest co-production, Tree, a search for the soul and spirit of contemporary South Africa

If Idris Elba calls, you better pick up the phone. If he suggests collaborating on a musical play, it’s hard to say no. This is the enviable position Kwame Kwei-Armah has found himself in developing Tree, destined for the Manchester International Festival and shortly after, the Young Vic. Inspired by Elba’s album Mi Mandela, the show promises to examine the ghosts of South Africa’s past and where it stands today through participatory music and dance, placing the audience in the eye of the storm. That electric magic unique to theatre. 

It’s a “non-linear piece that will have the most amazing movement. It explores connecting to the line that you’ve come from and celebrating the discovery of all parts of you” notes Kwei-Armah. The theatrical polymath with an OBE for services to the arts – previously artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage – has written for the National Theatre, Donmar Warehouse and Tricycle Theatre, most recently taking the helm at the Young Vic in 2018. Ahead of the show, we spoke to him about South Africa’s innate creativity, confronting history and the vulnerability needed for theatre.   

You’ve known Idris for a long time, how did the collaboration come about?

It was organic. He called me one day and said would you consider adapting Mi Mandela into a musical. I’ve been a fan of Idris since we were teenagers – he was one of the first actors I looked at and thought, ‘you could be a superstar’. He was that beautiful. We’ve been trying to find a way to work with each other for years, so I gave it a listen and knew there was a way for me to contribute. He explained why he made the album, why he connects to South Africa, to dementia, to trees. It was essentially about his father dying and going back to South Africa to start the healing, a dance with grief. Going back to your roots to heal was ultimately why I wanted to produce it.

Why do think South Africa is such a wellspring of theatre?

Honestly, black South Africans are some of the most talented people on the earth. They are triple threats – they sing well, they dance well, they perform well. Particularly the South African work that I grew up with, that was born of a political scream and shout. So, when you combine that magnificent innate creativity and juxtapose it against a harsh environment, it actually brings out the best in artists. I am not in any way saying that artists need to live under Apartheid in order to make great work, but that the environment concentrates that talent. There is something in the water, something in that part of the land that allows for the combination of storytelling, activism and magic that naturally creates something transformational.

Likewise, Ireland during the last century has produced incredible theatre in response to conflict

Absolutely. One of my favourite plays in the world is The Plough and the Stars by Seán O’Casey. There is something about rebellion, pushing against being silenced, about having to find a way to bring your voice to the fore through creativity that is tremendously moving.

What can theatre offer to an audience that TV or film cannot come close to offering?

It’s three dimensions of a human being. To see them, to smell them, to see the spittle, the air, to sense the funk – to rub up against your reflection in a holistic sense. That’s what theatre gives us, it’s seeing the magic in front of your eyes. Cinema is magnificent and TV is brilliant, but they are removed. Having to dance with the sensibilities of another human being telling you a story, for your own education and your own entertainment, is magic to me. I still get a thrill every time I walk into a theatre no matter where I am in the world. I am in that place where stories are told, where communion happens. Theatre is, for the Western world today, our church. We go to commune with others. We go to seek guidance, reflect and refract upon it.

There’s a line from one of the songs called Hold On: “These walls are just make believe / They’ll cause you to doubt your dreams”. Are there any lyrics from the album that really resonate with you?

There’s a line from the song One: “I am as desperate as the hunted, as mad as the hunter”. I think as an artist I have to be both of those things. What is that duality that lives within me, how do I negotiate with it and how do I have it serve my narrative and not someone else’s? It’s complicated.

South Africa underwent truth and reconciliation in 1995, what do you think the region needs now in order to restore its confidence and settle its political unrest?

Modern South Africa must come to terms when moving from the first draft to the second draft of history. The generation who were ‘born free’, who didn’t grow up under Apartheid, still feel a disenfranchisement and many are not seeing the concrete effects of freedom in economic and social terms. The future South Africa must come to terms with its wealth distribution. It has to talk about the absolute disparity of land and wealth and how it can transfer it equally. How do you do that inclusively, and avoid making people feel as if South Africa is not their home? That is the challenge.

Does the UK also need to reconcile its problematic history?

It’s beginning to happen in places like Cambridge, Bristol and Glasgow – cities publicly discussing how they benefitted from the Transatlantic slave trade. We need to come to terms with that and reconcile these problems for our children’s sake. It’s about repair and healing. The United Kingdom has only just started to look at its history and how it affects the present. At the moment, we are experiencing an identity crisis, but we are in denial about this crisis. We have to think deeply about our past in order to negotiate our future.

How can we untangle occidental perspectives of Africa?

News media reporting on the continent do not need to lead with terror. The terror of poverty, corruption, war. There needs to be a balance of stories so that horror isn’t the dominant narrative, in the creative media too. Theatre can explore these traumas, but needs to complicate it, broaden it, in order to challenge stereotypes and change the world’s perception of Africa. How do we expose ourselves to the most three-dimensional take on other cultures that occupy this space we call earth?

Vulnerability is needed for that – what role do you think this plays in theatre?

Understanding other cultures, for example black culture, can mean walking into the theatre with the vulnerability of understanding your privilege and that some of your privileges are signs of omission, not commission. That ultimately, we are walking into safe spaces that strictly want us to be our best selves. Audiences have to allow themselves to be exposed to their ugly as well as their beautiful and realise that everyone is trying to tell these stories through a sense of love.

I come to every piece of work as a director and writer with huge vulnerability. We just finished the third draft of Tree and I am vulnerable. I can sit and take notes in rehearsals, but I actually have nothing until we have an audience. One of the things I’m trying to do with the show is make the audience integral to the storytelling. Now, I may succeed, I may not. There may be plot moves where we’re literally going up to the audience and asking them if he should go left or right. I’ve got to be ready for either. There are moments where I need the audience to take part in a rave – if they don’t, then I don’t have a show. For the first time in my life I am writing a show that has an actor in it I can’t rehearse with. It’s terrifying, but in the best way.

Tree runs at the Manchester International Festival from 29th June – 13th July 2019