March’s playwright: Kwame Kwei-Armah #12newplaywrightsin12months

‘The best work is that which comes from the specific, but becomes universal.’ -Kwame Kwei-Armah interviewed by Whats On Stage.com

As I mentioned in my previous post in this series #12newplaywrightsin12months I found my copy of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen whilst clearing out and I couldn’t believe I’d never got round to reading it! In 2003 Kwei-Armah won The Evening Standard Award for the Most Promising New Playwright for this play and he was also shortlisted for best new play at the 2004 Laurence Olivier Awards. In 2005 he became the first Black Briton to have a play produced (Elmina’s Kitchen) in London’s West End. He now lives in the USA and is Artistic Director of the Centre Stage Theatre in Baltimore partly because he didn’t think he’d get such an opportunity in the UK. (Read more about that here)

Casualty

  • An actor’s grasp of dialogue and a use of theatre tricks

I first knew of Kwame Kwei-Armah as the actor who played Fin in BBC 1’s hospital drama Casualty and never realised he was a writer too. From reading Elmina’s Kitchen you can definitely feel that he’s an actor as well, as he’s not afraid to use just a look, or a short phrases to communicate the story and also he doesn’t shy away from using little theatre tricks, for example, one of his characters Clifton enters and then shrink down as he realises he’s stumbled on some private discussion that he secretly wants to listen to and then once the discussion has finished he ‘re-enters’ boldly to cover this up. Maybe this convention is used in TV too but it felt quite conscious, coming from a writer who also knows how to work the stage himself. It’s not something I’d think of using but it’s a good trick to remember.

  • Using a range of characters from different generations encourages you to think more deeply about the social problem at the heart of the play

When asked in an interview where this play came from he says

‘Jack Bradley, the National’s literary manager, had read a couple of my earlier plays, and he invited me to do a writer’s initiative. I went away and wrote a piece, Hooked Up, but it was rubbish. I got confused and frightened, thinking of writing for a National audience, so when Jack called me to ask for the play, I wouldn’t send it to him. He asked me what lessons I’d learnt from it. I realised I was writing not from my heart but from my head. So I looked around for subjects that I could feel in my heart and spirit. Then one night I was driving down the Lower Clapton Road where I was living, and I saw a BMW smashed up around a lamppost – two young black boys had been shot and killed. I was so hurt and frustrated and angry that I wanted to write a play that had at its essence the idea that we as a nation and a community must find ways to supersede our circumstances.’ -Kwame Kwei-Armah interviewed by Whats On Stage.com

Elmina’s Kitchen could’ve become something quite one-dimensional looking at gang culture in Hackney but instead it’s a play with a political, cultural and emotional calling. He does this by using 3 generations of men strengthened by their familial bond: Grandad, Father, Son, all at different stages in their search for identity in Britain: one claiming he plans to go back to the West Indies that he left to show them what he’s made of himself and his family, another trying to turn around his West Indian restaurant in Hackney and the other who’s supposed to be going to college but who instead aspires to join a local Yardie gang. This is a classic theatre device to help the audience see the different attitudes to a certain social issue and emphasise the generational, historical problem. It’s not something I’ve been interested in working with before as I’ve always felt it an old fashioned and maybe contrived way of presenting social problems but Kwei-Armah’s deft use of this in such a modern context raises the play to a national level making it more universal and accessible. Everyone can relate to having disagreements with their father or wanting something different from their family can’t they?

Elmina's Kitchen at the Cottesloe in 2003

Photo from the original production at National Theatre

  •  Use of music helps sense of place and culture, and underscores action

I’d be interested to know how much music was in the script before it was taken into production. There’s a great traditional West Indian music prologue at the beginning of the play that really sets the action up and at the beginning of the second act the cast are all singing as well. There’s also reference to songs and music coming from a TV in the restaurant where the play’s set and it not only helps establish the time and place of the play but it also ends up underscoring the action. All this lifts moments in the dialogue giving it more weight and urgency, and for someone like me who is not West Indian, it helped me get into the play a lot easier. In my play Godless Monsters I’ve used 2 songs but the director has put in some more, and at one particular moment she’s cut text in favour of using a song to underscore action as she incorporated 2 scenes in one, splitting the stage action so 2 scenes happen at once. In this instance the prologue sets up the show well, and I would say the music sections are essential to the piece. It’s definitely a device to look at using if you haven’t yet, and is one I’d definitely use again.

 April’s playwright

"Danai Gurira 0001" by Tristan Loper - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Danai Gurira 0001” by Tristan LoperOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Well there was a lot to take from Elmina’s Kitchen and I’ll be thinking more about the devices used going into my #TryptychChallenge project that I’m working on.

You may know her from Walking Dead, but I am seeing Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed at the Gate Theatre this month so she will be my April playwright. It’s being billed as a strong female play set in Liberia, so I’m very interested to see how it works!

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