Brought up in Southall, west London, Kwei-Armah changed his name from Ian Roberts when he was 19 after tracing his family roots to Ghana. His experiences of growing up in Southall during the riots and witnessing the police and skinhead brutality against the black and Asian community had a profound effect on him, and formed the basis of his first play Bitter Herb which he wrote in 1998. His first major TV role was as the paramedic Finlay Newton in Casualty between 1999 and 2004, and it was during this time he gained prestige as one of Britain’s best emerging playwrights and directors.
His play Elmina’s Kitchen about families and crime in Hackney’s so-called murder mile at a time when the stories of poor black and Asian communities rarely made it on to London’s stages took Kwame’s work to the West End making him the second black British playwright ever to have done so. Kwame then went on to the role of Artistic Director at Center Stage in Baltimore which he has held since 2011 and has established himself as one of the best regional theatre directors in America. He was also Chancellor of the University of the Arts London from 2010 to 2015, and in 2012 was awarded an OBE for services to drama.
Kwei-Armah has been an outspoken critic of the lack of black and Asian voices on stage and behind the scenes in British theatre. Speaking last year, he 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.”
Due to this, Kwame’s appointment is set to be pivotal moment in the push to increase diversity in British theatre.
The multi-award-winning playwright Roy Williams said: “I think it’s terrific news and it’s about bloody time, if I’m going to be frank, to see a person of colour leading one of the capital’s most important theatres. It’s something we’ve all been wanting to see for quite some time, and some of us doubted whether it would ever happen. With all the talk about diversity, and the Act for Change movement, we’ve all been waiting to see some action.
Patrick McKenna, chair of the Young Vic board, said after meeting Kwei-Armah the panel was “unanimous in its decision to appoint him as the next leader for this remarkable institution”.
He added: “Kwame’s wealth of experience directing, writing, and working with the local community in Baltimore and beyond will translate beautifully to his new role leading the work on the Young Vic’s three stages as well as its pioneering outreach and education work in London.”
The Appointment of Kwame and the exciting direction he is set to take the Young Vic in is a welcome addition to the diverse range of Arts and culture in Waterloo in 2018, including: For the first time Waterloo will host works from London Lumiere 18- 21 January, followed by the Vaults Festival’s 240 live show extravaganza 24 January – 18 March, The Old Vic have Legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny & Alexander in February followed by their own productions of A Monster Calls in July. For more information on these events and more look at the WeAreWaterloo Events page.