Survival of the fittest: Kwame probes the immigrant's eternal plight

BY BRIDGET GALTON With two of his plays running in London theatres, playwright and ex-Casualty star Kwame Kwei-Armah examines a community in transition and questions what it means to be black and British KWAME Kwei-Armah was best known as a soap actor and Celebrity Fame

With two of his plays running in London theatres, playwright and ex-Casualty star Kwame Kwei-Armah examines a community in transition and questions what it means to be black and British

KWAME Kwei-Armah was best known as a soap actor and Celebrity Fame Academy contestant when he was catapulted to

literary fame with his debut play Elmina's Kitchen.

The 2003 drama about youth and gun crime in Hackney's murder mile handed Kwei-Armah the accolade of first black British-born playwright to have his work staged in the West End.

His second major work,

Fix Up, set in a black history bookstore in Tottenham, was also lauded by critics and pursued similar themes of cultural identity and the paucity of black educational aspirations in Britain.

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Last month, the third in his triptych of plays about British African-Caribbeans, Statement Of Regret - on at the Cottesloe Theatre until February 6 - threw up the playwright's first stumbling block with its decidedly mixed critical reception for his depiction of white collar staff in a black political think-tank.

The 40-year-old, who lives in Muswell Hill, has been left feeling defiant but "rather exposed" as he rehearses his next play at the Tricycle Theatre.

"If anything, it's made me slightly more militant. I won't be contained," says the father-of-three.

"I won't have the status quo saying, 'When you write a play about the black underclass, it's OK. But write about middle-class blacks and it's not.'"

Billed as "an immigrant's tale of beginnings, endings and Britishness", Let There Be Love concerns sick West Indian pensioner Alfred Morris, who hires a Polish cleaner to help at his Willesden home.

The cantankerous Alfred decides to teach the eager new arrival about her adopted country.

"I feel I am really opening myself up now for criticism by directing my own work. But what is life without fear - what is art without fear? You can only do what you feel and it also feels magnificent to have two plays on in London at the same time."

Kwei-Armah, who has said his mission as a playwright is to use theatre as a catalyst for debate, is directing the intensely personal piece.

"Just as I never wrote to act in my plays, I certainly don't write to direct them.

"It's not that I thought no-one else could serve it well. It's that this play is really personal to me - I didn't want to let it go.

"It's a dance with my mother who passed away two years ago. It is a celebration, a voyage into the world of the immigrant and their legacy."

He adds: "One of the biggest problems when it comes to immigration is that quintessentially, human nature is conservative. It's really easy to complain and say I want things to stay as they are. The problem is it makes our spirits small. It kills our empathy. I am afraid of that. We must challenge that."

Kwei-Armah, who changed his name from Ian Roberts to reflect his Ghanaian ancestry, is acutely aware that the first generation of British African-Caribbeans, who emigrated to Britain in the late 1940s and 50s, is now dying out.

"If we are lucky, we only have 20 years left of them. They don't have the luxury of a multiplicity of narratives in the mainstream and a lot of their stories will simply die."

Let There Be Love probes the legacy of the Windrush generation as they pass the baton onto a new influx of Eastern European immigrants.

"Much of the story I am hearing from my Eastern European friends is exactly the same thing I heard my friends and parents say when I was young. 'I am only here for five years to make my money and go back. But how will I live back at home? How will people receive me?'"

The Polish cleaner is based on his mother and there is a healthy dose of hilarity in the spectacle of the xenophobic Alfred spouting racist cant against the newcomers while teaching his idiosyncratic view of Britishness.

"For the immigrant generation, the major objective is survival and the biggest challenge is how quickly you learn the rules of survival. If this was written in the 50s, it would have been a Jewish man and a West Indian woman.

"I don't think we have seen and heard these (black) xenophobic characters saying the things that Alf Garnett would have said 20 years ago, complaining about immigrants stealing their jobs and about going back to where you came from.

"But I know people who speak in that way. It's kind of interesting to see that transition on stage, those layers of immigration in a place like Willesden, and interesting how quickly people forget - even though they come from the West Indies. When the chips are down, they say, 'This is my home, this is my environment. I want it to remain the way it is.'"

Highlighting racism within the black community is part of Kwei-Armah's drive to move the debate on from the facile two-tone of white-on-black oppression. He argues forcefully that the black community needs urgently to address its own issues.

Statement Of Regret, which featured exhilarating, rarely heard exchanges about the legacy of slavery and deeply-held resentment between Africans and African-Caribbeans, was a case in point.

"I was disappointed at the reviews. My friends speak and debate about those themes. So for one critic to say that my characters sounded ridiculous is hard. But as a playwright you have to try to do better next time.

"My honest feeling when I go to the show and see the audiences and hear the debates is that it is successful within its own terms.

"I wrote a catalyst for debate and the debate is huge. That's what the theatre is about and I walk away with that as my reward - even though there will be no bronze statues on my mantelpiece.

"Statement was my most important play."

The issue has highlighted a problem - that Kwei-Armah's trailblazing career can leave him lonely because there are few peers in his position to turn to for advice.

He has commented that, on past experience of black playwrights, he feels he has a small window in which to make his point before the white establishment pulls the rug.

"I would love to say that was a flippant remark. But the insecurities borne out of racism and my reading of history tell me otherwise. Whether it proves to be correct, I will never rest on my laurels. My mother said I had to be 10 times better than my white peers to survive.

"I say to my kids they have to be twice as good. That's progress of sorts."

And the ever-optimistic Kwei-Armah will not remain downhearted for long.

Last year he saw four black plays in a row at Soho Theatre.

This year, Roy Williams's play for the RSC comes on at the Tricycle after Let There Be Love.

"The climate is wonderful. It's a wonderful time. I just don't want the tent to shrink.

"I want it to get bigger with more multi-stranded narratives that explore the black British story. We are more than just entertainers.

"We are the archivists. And the more we write, the greater the archive will be for the next generation."

Let There Be Love is at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn from January 17 until February 16.