When Kwame Kwei-Armah was invited to become the Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage six years ago, the thing that struck him most about moving to Maryland was the colors. “The colors of the sky,” he says, “the colors of fall, in particular. The leaves are so beautiful, the colors are so vibrant.” He remembers snapping this image and seeing the snow, which really shouldn’t be in it. “Snow and fall, in my humble opinion, are two separate things. But in the middle of fall, we had this snowstorm and it feels a little bit like my life. Like the immigrant’s life, actually. So many things are surprising about living in a new country. So many things catch you off guard.”
Another thing that struck Kwame, one of the things that has been the best part of being here for him, is the energy that is America. The engine of optimism. “Without a shadow of a doubt, it is a can-do country,” he says. “In my experience of this country, from my privileged position, if you have a good idea here people say ‘how can we make it work?’ It’s geared towards that kind of entrepreneurial spirit. That’s very exciting.”
Kwame was born in London to immigrant parents, so he is a first-generation British born. The country he was born into really saw him as an immigrant, probably up until about fifteen or twenty years ago. And he felt like an immigrant. Then, post 1997 in Britain, there was a real push towards inclusion, and he began to feel British for the first time, as if England was his home. “And then what did I do? I up and made myself an immigrant again. And as an adult being an immigrant, I understand how bold it was of my parents, who were in their 20s when they left Grenada to come to England, what a big bold experience it is.”
His immigrant status is really, really fascinating for Kwame. “As a natural born, there are critiques you can make of your country, critiques you can make of your government, that as an immigrant you think twice before you … not think it, but before you articulate it. You find a different way of framing it,” he says. “Because, quintessentially, someone born in a country can say exactly the same thing and it can be perceived as love for the country, and the exact same thing from someone foreign can be seen as hate for the country.” So, he believes, there is an insecurity about being an immigrant that affects you intellectually; that makes you have to think more than you normally would about the way you see the world and what you can do to solve it. So the experience of being an immigrant has made him more empathetic. “I count my blessings a bit more. It’s made me, I think, slightly wiser.”
Kwame still has family in London, and missing the people he loves is the most difficult part – his family, and the friends that have been his friends for twenty and thirty years. Still, he got here when social media was exploding, and it’s revolutionized his connection to home. “I can get on the phone and call someone and it doesn’t cost me anything. And I can see them via FaceTime, and that’s fantastic.”
Evidently, Kwame has picked up the “can-do” element of America. Likewise, the energy that he pours into being a multi-talented theater practitioner – playwright, director, actor, and Artistic Director at Baltimore Center Stage – is a good fit for this country. The strangest part of being an immigrant in America, Kwame says, has been not being able to vote – but, given his can-do energy, one has the sense that even that has the potential to change.